Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ben Franklin's View of Insanity...
Appropos of yesterday being Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday (I think it was yesterday), I was reminded of one of the old geezer's most famous remarks about futility. Paraphrasing Ben Americana, the quote goes something along the lines of "Insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results".

Which brings me to a speech made two days ago by Michael Chertoff, the director of the so-called Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Chertoff, in response to complaints from people who regulalry traverse US borders with Canada and Mexico, unveiled a plan to speed up the annoying routine of actually having your travel permits, papers, etc. checked at border crossings. Apparently, complying with US law upon entering the United States is a tad difficult for some folks, akin to the necessary evil of having a cavity drilled.

The new plan to speed up "security checks" at US Border Crossings is to implement what Mr. Chertoff calls a "Trusted Traveler" program, where people who routinely and rugularly cross into the US from Canada and Mexico will be given an identification card. Possession of this card, from what I can tell, helps travellers avoid the process of removing their shoes at the airport or actually having to carry their passports.

Which is where Franklin's description of insanity comes into play.

If we learned anything from 9/11 it is that the process of obtaining identification papers in the United States is extremely easy. The hijackers had 60 state driver's licenses between them, for example. Social Security cards wind up in the hands of illegal immigrants all the time, especially the fake kind. Counterfeiting of identification documents is rampant. Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world, made easier by the fact that Americans are so free and easy with revealing their personal information. Just ask any telemarketer how many credit card numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, etc., they collect on the average day while selling timeshares in Florida. Just ask your insurance company, bank or doctor how much information thay have on you. Just think of how many of you may be reading this right now from a computer on which you have ordered something from Amazon, via credit or debit card, and which is still not protected by a firewall, security software, anti-virus software, etc.

Check the garbage pail in your local mall establishment for all those carbons that get thrown away, or sometimes, lifted by employees. Ask yourself how it is that 2 year olds get called for jury duty, or that dead people and housecats have credit cards issued in their names.

Ask Microsoft how much they know about you. They pretty much check on your computer all the time to see if you're stealing software.

So, there's an awful lot of information floating around on pretty much everyone. Much of it just laying around for the taking. Since our lives are pretty much resigned to a database somewhere which can be hacked (or more likely, your bank or the magazine you subscribe to will sell your information to an interested buyer), lost, pilfered, etc., it kinda sorta waters down the value of any form of personal identification.

So why, oh why, when we know that such devices are easily forged or counterfeited, that with the easy access to people's personal information brought about by the computer revolution, is our government issuing a "Trusted Traveller Card" that is barely worth the plastic it's made of?

Because the Department of Homeland Security (and the government in general) have to be seen as "doing something" in the face of all the rancor and debate about securing the borders. If the argument is "We don't know who is crossing our borders at any given time" the government response can be "Sure we do, we gave them ID cards, see?".

It is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem. But that's government, especially the American government, for you: when confronted by a serious issue, do something ineffective and open to fraud, but symbolic of your "commitment" to "safe and secure" borders.

This is merely an extention of previous government boondoggles on border security which used to fall under the euphamism of "guest worker program".

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