Editorial on Ellison, McNealy, and national ID card

Clay Shirky clay@shirky.com
Thu, 25 Oct 2001 13:27:02 -0400 (EDT)

> I think this timeline is a bit optimistic, but I won't quibble with the
> overall direction. Sometime in the first half of the 21st century, it will
> be possible to uniquely identify someone from their DNA in real time, at
> trivial cost.

This sounds like an interesting side bet. I'd be willing to use "Under
10 minutes, using a cheek swab, for under $1000 per ID, in less than 2
years" as a proxy.


> But, all that DNA does is give you a GUID, a Globally Unique IDentifier.
> You still need a big honkin' database to resolve that GUID into a legal
> entity (name, nationality, criminal record, etc.)  It is now, and in the
> future, possible to fight the creation of this database.

I don't think so, because like SS, the database is going to be created
piecemeal, and the forces driving it are going to be protecting
children, managing paternity, prison reform, and grief.

The first piece of the DB will be created when something bad happens
to an infant -- abduction, baby-switching -- and a law will be passed
making GUIDing all babies mandatory. And, since their parents are
there as well, or at least the mother, why not GUID them too -- after
all, you've got all the materials at hand. These GUIDs will only exist
in the hospital system, whom we already trust with our most sensitive

Next, the currently unstable attitude towards paternity will crack.
Sometime last year, a court found that a man who used a DNA test to
prove that his wife had a child by another man was not released from
child support, because the marriage is designed to create a legal
fiction that the children in a marriage are the product of both

This is an unstable mess of a situation, but the State's problem is
clear -- they have a compelling interest in child support. Having DNA
confirm who _isn't_ the father won't do them much good unless they can
go on to discover who _is_ the father. There will be plenty of
pressure from the "Get the deadbeat dads" wing to make subpoena's of
DNA a legitimate method of discovering paternity.

Then the use of DNA to reverse rape convictions will continue to grow,
and to shake the faith in the penal system, until, as a condition of
reform, all prisoners are GUIDed. Centuries of case law have made
clear that circumscribing the civil liberties of prisoners is not only
legal, it is in many ways part of the point of prison.

Finally, when the enormity of what was possible at the WTC becomes
generally understood, grieving survivors of firefighters and soldiers
and accident victims everywhere are going to grow increasingly furious
at the idea of waiting for a forensic check of dental records to ID a
corpse. And once this becomes common, why not do the sequencing in
advance? Enter it into your last will and testament, maybe emboss it
into your drivers license...

And here's where the real problem lies. If each of these institutions
were to pursue, in a perfectly legal fashion, a circumscribed database
of the sort listed here, and each used a different primary key for the
db, there would be no interoperation. The prison record would be
stored differently than the hospitcal record and differently than the
legal record.

_But they don't have different primary keys._ This is what the "Fight
the big DB!" camp doesn't get. There doesn't need to be a big DB,
there just needs to be a lot of little DBs that use the same GUID.

The real question is "What do we want to see happen with that
capability." Anyone singing the song of "Lets keep this from
happening" is just laying more cement into the Maginot line. Its
happened. Its over. There is a national ID system, there is a global
ID system in fact, and using it, any two arbitrary databases anywhere
in the world and do a merge to come up with a single match.

What now?