Obama's Proposal for Internet ID for All Americans is Risky

Last Updated Jan 12, 2011 11:35 AM EST

This week President Barack Obama gave the Commerce Department the permission to create a unique online ID for each American. The details are slim and it is still only a proposal, but the identification program could be a serious threat to both Internet free speech and security.

A Chilling Effect on Speech and Privacy

The relative anonymity of the Internet has its downsides. People can post illegal media, hate speech, and other offensive content with little to no consequences. The only identifiers are their computer IP address and, perhaps, an email address, the latter of which can be made for free on GMail, Hotmail, or countless other services in two minutes. The negative outcomes of this anonymity have been well documented, most recently the rash of suicides from online hate crimes.

However, the anonymity also allows us to take full advantage of the Internet. It is as simple as searching for particular information, viewing certain media, or reading controversial material and not fearing that the U.S. government (or worse) is keeping tabs on your actions.

Corporations are already working hard to erode user privacy:

If each individual had a universal ID, it would be even easier to access his or her information. Aggressive targeted marketing using private data and evasive, extensive files on user habits could become the norm.

Identity Theft Will Become Easier

A universal internet ID could also make identity theft a bigger risk. It just doesn't seem possible to protect the individual:

  • Would this government ID be a standalone identifier, like a social security number? If so, knowing the ID itself would make theft much easier.
  • Would the ID be a handle/password combination? The handle would probably be public, which means a thief could nab the password and use the identity.
  • What would the ID contain? If it kept the user's address, phone number, and other details, getting it stolen would be tantamount to being mugged -- or worse.
Post-Wikileaks, there's no reason to believe that all our private information, including Internet passwords, would remain private once it is tied to a government identity. It's ironic that an administration that has been making corporations protect Internet user privacy would suggest a program that could destroy it once and for all.

Photo courtesy of alancleaver_2000 // CC 2.0

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