Mission Creep

Charles Kenny is too quick to encourage people to give up their privacy.

Charles Kenny argues in favor of government-issued biometric identification, contending that "for all the justifiable concerns, the bottom line is that the rapid global spread today of more robust ID systems -- powered by new technologies that use high-tech personal features from fingerprints to brain waves -- is great news" ("The Case for Big Brother," March/April 2013). Having spent more than a decade in privacy research and policy and, recently, seven months in India researching two of its biometric ID systems and interviewing Indian citizens about their new IDs, I beg to differ with Kenny's rosy view of this and other ID systems.

Government-issued biometric ID cards are messy. They create profound civil liberties and privacy challenges that are neither easily nor well constrained by government policy -- when constraints are in place at all. Take India's "Total ID" card, part of an intricate and advanced ID system that comprises what is becoming the largest biometric data set of individuals on the planet. Although the cards were initially billed as a way to provide identification to even the country's poorest citizens, who are most likely to be undocumented, their uses have been expanded and have become a classic example of mission creep. The cards are now used to track transactions such as the direct cash transfers that are part of India's welfare program, as well as for employment verification and terrorism prevention. Identification cards that were initially voluntary are becoming much less so in reality. Teachers who do not have the cards have been denied pay in some places, and residents in some states told me that they have had trouble purchasing train tickets without ID cards. Unless something changes, the pressure for all residents to have a "voluntary" card will make them mandatory in practice.

Meanwhile, India has no omnibus privacy law constraining the Total ID card or its data sets. There are no legal guarantees against abuses of the systems -- for example, accessing private medical records. After a bureaucratic turf war over which government agency would control the massive data sets, a truce was reached last year, with duplicate data sets sent to two competing government entities, multiplying the potential for misuse. The right to collect biometric data is now being challenged in India's Supreme Court.

Biometric ID cards that carry information about citizens' health benefits, services, and movements may seem like a feat of technology from afar. Up close, however, it's clear such systems require substantial checks and balances, without which they can pose meaningful threats to hard-won freedoms.

Executive Director, World Privacy Forum
San Diego, Calif.

Charles Kenny replies:

Pam Dixon raises very important concerns about the potential -- and actual -- abuses of universal ID systems. I completely agree with her that such systems should be bound by strong privacy protections and transparent oversight of their use, and I'm grateful for her work in this area.

At the same time, Dixon was able to travel to India because she had a passport. And she was able to pay for the trip because she had a bank account. Both capabilities are linked to her presence in ID systems. The promise of biometric-technology advances is that they might allow more of the world to share in the benefits of identification systems that Westerners too easily take for granted.


Storming the Hill

Thomas P.M. Barnett lets the White House off the hook for the Pentagon's dysfunction.

As the U.S. Defense Department enters the age of austerity in government expenditures, Thomas P.M. Barnett has provided us with an amusing catalog of the risks, contingencies, and super-adversaries as the U.S. military services conceive them ("Think Again: The Pentagon," March/April 2013). But Barnett takes too narrow an approach.

For one, he never mentions the president's role in defining the tasks that the services perform. The military always believes that Congress holds the services' fate in its hands and that if only the generals get their story right, Congress will give the Pentagon more money -- and favor one branch over another. But Congress remains completely dependent on the president's budget submission and has in the past approved it with no more than a plus-or-minus 1 percent change in the top line (though with lots of small changes in how that top line is distributed).

Given its panic about annual federal budget deficits and the national debt, Congress may well play a larger role at this particular juncture in U.S. history -- but only to make cuts. Moreover, the regular budget and appropriations process has now broken down. As a result, the services' panic about world events fails to resonate in the current political climate. To put it more simply, none of the fantasies Barnett details will yield more money for them -- but then those fantasies probably never did.

The other contextual problem with Barnett's argument is that the greatest surprise for the military is not what happens out in the world, but what the White House actually sends it off to do and where. Given that the military can't always predict this, it must now attend to two tasks. First, within the budget top lines it is given -- which can shrink -- it strives to maintain a range of capabilities, even if its force structure must shrink in number. Second, at the administration's direction, the military can sustain whatever overseas postures remain after most forces come home from Afghanistan or from forward supporting bases. In the case of the U.S. Navy, it must resume its regular deployments. For the military, sustaining its force posture in Asia is the essence of the so-called pivot, in addition to a continuing shift of 60 percent of whatever ships the Navy has to the Pacific.

Barnett smartly reveals the services' dilemmas as they decide how best to prepare for big wars and small. As he points out, however, neither seems very plausible these days. A big war with China sounds absurd given that both countries are intimately connected by global trade. It is doubly absurd to consider any attack on or invasion of the Chinese mainland -- China is a nuclear power. As for "small" wars, they have only turned out to be big quagmires instead, and the current administration clearly intends to avoid them. Moreover, I have counted more than 50 internal wars around the world since around 1990; few have strategic significance for the United States, and in any case, America has intervened in only six.

Center for Naval Analyses
Alexandria, Va.