EDITORIAL: Technology meets cultural resistance on ID cards

In the United States, cultural and political opposition to a national identity card is all but insurmountable. Yet the need for a workable solution grows more pressing by the day.

Who are you? And how do I know you are the person you say you are?

Those questions have existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Odysseus’ own wife doubted his identity when he returned from war, while in 16th-century France, a man famously convinced an entire community for years that he was Martin Guerre — until the real Martin Guerre returned.

And if identity was a thorny problem then, it is even more difficult today. Face-to-face confirmation might work in a village, but it doesn’t scale for a nation of 314 million. Online transactions only add to the complexity.

Yet this is also a case where technology could clearly provide a national solution. Most of us have Social Security numbers, our passports have electronic identifiers in their covers, and the ultimate identity signature exists in our DNA.

Technically possible and politically possible are two very different things, however. In the United States especially, cultural and political opposition to a national identity card — digital or otherwise — is all but insurmountable. Fears of big government, memories of the holocaust, legitimate privacy concerns and more nebulous worries of a “Gattaca” future all stand in the way of a government-run system.

Yet the need for a workable solution grows more pressing by the day. In this issue, we look at current efforts to orchestrate a federated, predominantly private-sector solution to establishing trusted identities that can be used and protected in many different venues. This decentralized, standards-driven approach brings challenges of its own but also offers the potential for a personal, secure digital identity that can serve virtually all verification and transactional needs. (Of course, whether Americans will be comfortable using an Amazon log-in to file their tax returns remains a very open question.)

Digital identity is a federal-level challenge. The government clearly cannot own the solution, but there are hopes that it can act as a convener and facilitator of the answers our digital era desperately needs.

NEXT STORY: ID management: A matter of trust

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