National digital ID clears congressional hurdle amid fears it could be politically abused
Recent headlines involving Kanye West (Ye), Sam Brownback and others sharpen anxieties about linkage of online financial access to ideological conformity.
A national digital ID system for U.S. citizens is fast becoming a reality following a vote by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to advance the Improving Digital Identity Act.
Digital IDs act as online, data-laden representations of human beings. Many analysts, such as the authors of a 2019 McKinsey Global Institute report, argue they could be the key to unlocking access to financial services, various government benefits and educational opportunities, as well as a number of other critical services. Some of the same analysts, however, also warn that the "risks and potential for misuse of digital ID are real and deserve careful attention."
Although the concerns about digital IDs are real, it's important to separate the facts from the fearmongering fiction.
In simple language, a digital identity enables an individual to prove who they are in the virtual world. Proponents claim digital IDs offer greater privacy than traditional forms of identification and can help minimize some of the risks associated with physical documents such as driver's licenses, passports, etc. Others, though, are quick to sound the alarm, warning that the introduction of digital IDs will almost certainly lead to an erosion of civil liberties.
"Digital is often touted as the 'future,' and many people cast such a transition as inevitable," writes Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, who believes digital IDs could prove to be a privacy nightmare. "But digital is not always better — especially when systems are exclusively digital."
"There’s a reason that most jurisdictions have spurned electronic voting in favor of paper ballots, for example," Stanley writes. With voting software in some states vulnerable to outside interference, paper ballots increasingly appear to be much safer.
Similarly, digital IDs are vulnerable to attack. Horror stories involving people's identities being stolen are not uncommon. Remember, digital IDs are synonymous with data, and if there is one thing hacker's love, it's data — especially the data of U.S. citizens.
If digital identities are introduced in the U.S., which looks increasingly likely, they will be inextricably linked with financial services. Financial institutions, after all, are being encouraged to lead the way in the development of comprehensive digital identity solutions. Digital IDs, we're told, will become more critical as online and mobile banking becomes more popular.
Recent headlines make it easy to see why so many people, fearful of the enforcement of political/ideological conformity through financial control, are hesitant to embrace digital IDs.
The banking behemoth JP Morgan Chase recently cut ties with Kanye West, who now goes by the name Ye. While the bank's notification to him reportedly predates recent controversies involving the outspoken rapper and designer — he sported a White Lives Matter tee shirt and made remarks widely condemned as anti-Semitic — Ye appears to hold certain viewpoints that don't align with those held by the multinational's executives.
Around the same time as Ye found himself being kicked to the curb, JP Morgan decided to freeze the bank account of the National Committee for Religious Freedom (NCRF), a nonpartisan nonprofit founded by former Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback. Brownback, who served as ambassador-at-Large for international religious freedom in the Trump administration, was offered no explanation for why the account was frozen.
Meanwhile, it recently emerged that PayPal, an online payment system used by tens of millions of Americans, planned to fine users $2,500 in damages if they were found guilty of spreading "misinformation." Although PayPal has since reassured users that the policy won't be introduced, this reassurance came only after considerable backlash, including mass account cancellations by users and a sharp drop in the company's stock price.
Earlier this year, GoFundMe, a for-profit crowdfunding platform headquartered in Redwood City, Calif., froze donations to Canadian truckers opposing Covid vaccine mandates. Shortly afterwards, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, who reportedly favors digital ID, threatened to freeze the bank accounts of the truckers.
The high probability of digital IDs being closely associated with access (or lack thereof) to finances and the growing link between ideological leanings and financial exclusion are fueling much of the resistance to digital identification.
But the concerns don't end there. Brett Solomon, the executive director of Access Now, an NGO that defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world, argues that these IDs are ripe for abuse and that the threats of implementing them far outweigh the benefits.
Citing his decade of experience tracking the perils and promise of technology for human rights, Solomon wrote in a 2018 Wired article that "digital ID, writ large, poses one of the gravest risks to human rights of any technology that we have encountered."
Coupled with "facial recognition technology and other identifiers," Solomon warned, digital IDs have "the capacity for geo-location of identifiers." In other words, tracking citizens' every digital movement.
Solomon's ominous warnings tie in with fears that someone, somewhere is always watching, and if Big Brother doesn't like what you're doing, punishment will surely be served — fears that have only been heightened by recent headlines.
The Facts Inside Our Reporter's Notebook
- advance the Improving Digital Identity Act
- 2019 McKinsey Global Institute report,
- concerns about digital IDs are real
- greater privacy
- believes digital IDs could prove to be a privacy nightmare
- paper ballots
- vulnerable to outside interference
- identities being stolen
- data of U.S. citizens
- increasingly likely
- with financial services
- lead the way
- we're told
- recently cut ties
- freeze the bank account
- tens of millions
- froze donations
- threatened to freeze
- ripe for abuse