REAL ID and Islamophobia: Resisting Our Legibility To The State


In most parts of Europe, since the totalitarian governments of the inter-war period, pressure from governments to make their citizens legible has been hard to resist. Germany now has universal biometric ID cards for all adults, which police have a right to demand to see, irrespective of whether they have probable cause of your involvement in a crime; 24 of the 27 EU states have mandatory national ID cards.

Biometrics matter, because outside of science fiction, they can’t be changed. During refugee crises, deep anxieties – Who are these people? Why are they coming here? – induce governments to pin people down to an unchanging identity, like bugs in a biologist’s cabinet.

This is a fundamental difference between mainly-autochthonous and mainly-settler societies. Ideologically, the United States came to be out of westward conquest, by people eager to refashion themselves away from the religious and social strictures of more settled societies. At Ellis Island, you could change your name; on the frontier, a white man could be whoever he declared himself to be. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion, / A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, / Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest. / I resist any thing better than my own diversity, Breathe the air but leave plenty after me.” Settler societies are supposed to “leave plenty” of air to breathe for those who come to settle after them; they’re supposed to leave room to self-refashion. Anonymity, pseudonymity and the ability to erase your tracks bolster your power versus the state.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, and his calls for registration of suspiciously Muslim people; and which also brings us to efforts here in Massachusetts to increase our legibility by implementing the REAL ID Act.

The REAL ID Act dates back to 2005. When it passed, it was controversial; eighteen states passed laws opposing REAL ID adoption. It seeks to standardize drivers’ licenses to such an extent that they are a national photo ID in all but name. It requires state-issued IDs to be consistently machine-interpretable, so that whenever the ID is read electronically, information is sent to the state and, if the state wishes, shared onward to DHS. The Act gives the power to the Secretary of DHS to establish unilaterally purposes for which a REAL ID is required.

Part of the purpose is to make driver’s license photos searchable by facial recognition systems. Despite decades of investment, facial recognition systems are still highly unreliable, especially with faces photographed at a different angle, in different light, or from video. The most recent research suggests that in such unconstrained conditions, the best automated software has a 30%-50% false negative rate and a 0.5%-3% false positive rate. The claim that REAL ID facial recognition-compatible photos will help prevent terrorism, requires a situation where the government had a full-frontal driver’s license photograph in good light of potential terrorists before they attack. It’s hard to conceive of this actually happening. But, of course, that’s not stopping massive investments in facial recognition.

There’s a second problem relating to scale. The larger the database of driver’s ID photos, the greater the number of false matches. Two of my daughters are identical twins, and identical twins are already running into trouble with REAL ID. My cousin Charlie resembles, to a freakish but entirely unrelated degree, Youtube Pokemon channel star UnlistedLeaf. Once again, the government is trying to create a database that will misidentify a great deal, and lead to an ocean of false leads. A lower-bound false positive rate of 0.5% may not sound like much, until you’re dealing with a database of 200 million driver’s license photos and have one million false leads on your hands.

State lawmakers have gotten calls from constituents worried that they may not be able, using state non-REAL-ID-compliant IDs, to access federal buildings or travel on commercial flights. The truth of the matter is that, as of October 10 of this year, access to most federal buildings is limited to those with REAL IDs (or regular IDs plus another acceptable form of identification), but for the moment, it’s still OK for the purpose of accessing benefits. Whether that exclusion is enforced on the ground remains to be seen. REAL ID cards will not be available to undocumented immigrants, foreclosing the state from pursuing a more flexible approach in that area. And in Stage 4 of the REAL ID Act, due to begin next year, residents without a REAL ID may be denied boarding on airplanes and other forms of transportation, though discussions with airlines are ongoing. As that moves forward, REAL IDs present the possibility of inhibiting our freedom of movement on a federal scale.

Last, of course, REAL ID creates a new government database of high-resolution photos, which are susceptible to hacking in their own ways. The more digital a system is, the more accessible it will be to technically literate people, some of whom will want fake IDs for criminal purposes.

Massachusetts has not been in compliance with REAL ID, and has, like many states, been granted waivers from compliance over the years. But even before the Paris attacks, Governor Baker was citing concerns over terrorism and voter fraud to try to get the Legislature to adopt it. Once a system like this is in place nationally, it is easy for demagogues (yes, Mr. Trump, I’m looking at you) to misuse it for political gain.

No matter how used we are becoming to commercial services tracking our location and identity in real time, the government does not need to know. We’re not under any obligation to render ourselves transparent, biometrically and persistently, to authority, unless they have actual individual reason to suppose that we are involved in a specified crime. That applies even in states with “stop and identify” laws. Anything less than this opens the door to oppression of whoever the disfavored group is. Today, it’s Muslims, but in 1990, nobody knew that was going to happen; who will be in the disfavored group come 2040?

Because of this, we’re urging our members to call to oppose the adoption of this bill, and to come to a rally in solidarity with refugees on Friday, November 20, at 6:30pm at the Massachusetts State House.

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