The first shocking headlines after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared revealed that two men had boarded with stolen passports. ďStark evidence of security gap,Ē blared The Christian Science Monitor.
It appears that illegal immigration, not terrorism, was the two Iraniansí intention. But media and governments across the globe shook their heads wildly that an airport security system had failed to check an international database for stolen passports.
In this country, a state-issued driverís license is considered adequate identification for boarding a flight. Recall that following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed the Real ID Act to require states to issue counterfeit-proof driverís licenses for this purpose.
Recall also that a coalition of conspiracy addicts (on the left and right) and privacy crusaders called Real ID an assault on our civil liberties. Imagine, the government taking away the right to impersonate others. It should have been a zero-brainer that without secure driverís licenses, airport officials would have no idea who was boarding a plane.
Arguments leveled against Real ID are being recycled to bash the National Security Agencyís surveillance program. They inevitably lead to the assumption that the government is up to no good.
Now, one cannot vouch for the wisdom of every aspect of the NSA program to collect metadata on Americansí communications. Thereís always risk of abuse, and the agency hasnít always been straightforward about what it does.
But the easily stoked hysteria over a program designed to stop terrorist attacks reflects two facts: One is that most people donít know what metadata is. (Itís the numbers you dial, length of calls, email correspondence -- not the content of these communications.) The other is that the United States hasnít been subject to a major terrorist outrage in some time.
Back to Real ID. In 2008, the Electronic Privacy Information Center issued a 33-page report accusing government of pushing the secure driverís license as a sneaky way to create a national ID card. (The belief is that such cards, common in Europe, are evil.)
Among EPICís concerns, existing technology would enable the driverís licenses to also store credit card, library card and health care card data. There (SET ITAL) is (END ITAL) a difference between being able to do something and legally doing it. Technology could let licenses also store pictures of naked babies. That doesnít mean it would be so used.
EPIC complained that Real ID is not voluntary -- that is, residents of states that donít comply would be inconvenienced. Yeah, they wouldnít be able to get on planes with fake IDs.
The NSA foes talk about governmentís collecting ďmassiveĒ amounts of data, when the concern should be on what, not how much. Would you prefer that the computers just comb through the communications of certain immigrant groups?
Of course, one may infer some personal details from numbers dialed. Some tea party types have fretted that the feds might go after members calling groups opposed to Obamacare. Like the NSA cares.
In EPICís defense, the advocacy group also takes private companies to task for grabbing data, though not with nearly the same passion it directs at government. Which takes us to the fact that the super-personal information that privacy obsessives donít want in the computers of the NSA is already in the computers of the phone company. You can always trust Verizon, right?
President Obamaís proposed change would have the phone companies store the data, which they already do. The NSA could review an individualís record with a court order.Itís not very fashionable to support such programs right now. But if -- or rather when -- another major terrorist attack occurs, the conversation will rapidly turn.