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Defusing The Obama Internet ID Scare

Our guest blogger is Aaron Brauer-Rieke, Plesser Fellow for the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). CDT is a non-profit public interest organization working to keep the Internet open, innovative, and free.

The Obama administration recently discussed its intent to promote an enhanced Internet identity system. Many major media outlets reacted by casting the plan in an ominous and misleading light.

The plan, the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC), is currently in draft form. It envisions a future with fewer usernames and passwords, stronger security, better privacy, and new online services. Importantly, these new online identities would be optional and maintained by private companies.

Unfortunately, media outlets have taken the easy road and framed NSTIC as a government takeover of Internet ID. A CBS News headline announced “Obama Eyeing Internet ID for Americans.” (No one likes the government “eyeing” things, right?) Fox News reported the government would have the authority “to create an Internet ID for all Americans.” A recent article in The New York Times, under the headline “Obama’s Internet Plan Sounds an Awful Lot Like a National Internet ID,” insists that “[w]e are talking about a government-controlled system. That is exactly what we are talking about.” NSTIC is likened to a plan for an “alternative” Internet like “the Chinese government has been working on.” Yikes.

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The real story isn’t nearly as grim. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke made a simple and straightforward assurance: “We are not talking about a national ID card. We are not talking about a government-controlled system.” Even the ACLU offered some very cautious optimism, telling Bloomberg BusinessWeek “If the concept were implemented in a perfect way it would be very good.”

So, if NSTIC isn’t about a national ID card, what is it about?

Today, life on the Internet is supported by a rickety pile of insecure usernames and passwords. If this identity infrastructure can be made more reliable, convenience is increased and innovation is promoted. The Internet is already a fantastic tool — but if it could be made more trustworthy, it would be more useful to us all.

Imagine confidently using your cell phone to bank online, access your healthcare records, check your home’s monthly power consumption, and transfer the title to that car you just sold and doing so without having to enter multiple usernames or passwords. Imagine that federal, state, and local governments could more easily and reliably communicate with constituents online. These sorts of innovations will require a better identity infrastructure.

None of this will happen tomorrow, of course, but it’s important to start the conversation. It’s a collaborative process and the government should have a seat at the table.

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All of us, especially the press, should keep a critical eye on this important and complex process. There is potential here, but it has to be done right. It must be the private sector, and not the government, that builds and maintains any new identity infrastructure. We must ensure privacy doesn’t get lost in the mix. (Better identity can be privacy preserving, but this isn’t the default.) We have to protect easy access to anonymous speech. So there are caveats. But if properly implemented, a better online identity system could make our lives easier and unlock new possibilities.

Update:

Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren advocated an Internet ID system as a way to “tone down the viciousness.”