It had been done in countless movies and it was just a matter of time before reality caught up with fiction. Uncle Sam wants to know where you are, at all times. Period. It’s much easier to control the masses that way, and under a convenient cover of fighting against crime and terror, our individual rights and privacy bubble* grow thinner every day.
In comes British Columbia’s new EDL, or Enhanced Driver’s Licence. Having just been approved for public use, it represents a breakthrough in all the Dark Arts above. The EDL is – for the time being – a voluntary replacement to the standard driver’s license, upgraded with technology that will supposedly help prevent identity theft and most importantly, allow entry to the US like a normal passport would. Uh?
Now picture this: the new gem features a Radio Frequency Identification Chip (RFIC) which allows special chip readers to remotely access "limited" personal information data stored in a secure Canadian-soil database. As far as I can tell, US Customs is ironically the only one thus far to make use of this capability on OUR new EDL. So, what, we’ve created our new driver’s license to suit the paranoid security needs of our southern neighbor?
The process is pretty high tech, I’ll give you that much. You take your card out of its protective sleeve (designed to prevent unauthorized reading from Evil sources – great, so they admit it can be done, right in the intro) and flip it at the reader while in the (too long) line-up at the border crossing. It gets zapped and read, and the data retrieved. When you arrive at the booth, you hand the card over and your file is already up on the guy’s computer. So why the RFIC then? We just saved about 5 seconds. Big deal. All the agent had to do was swipe your card when you arrived. This hardly justifies implementing the chip, with the huge expenses involved, especially for a feature mainly used by US Border posts. Well, a pretext was needed for the upgrade and that’s what came up. No surprise here. Canada has always been in bed with the United States. Except that if you ask the US, they will deny. Great. A little more prostitution our part.
Of course if you read ICBC‘s web site, you’ll find a few paragraphs on privacy and how the new card respects our rights, blah-blah-blah. The data can only be accessed by US and Canadian official agencies and for lawful purposes. Really? No kidding! No personal information is contained on the chip, only a number that links you to a file in the database. So that’s a bit like saying "we’re not spying on you live, we use cameras to do so." The result is exactly the same.
The bottom line is simple. Give this another 5, 10 or 15 years and there will be a chip reader at every street corner, and by then everyone will have one of those EDL’s which will double as a credit card and portable medical record. Your movements will be recorded – not tracked, of course, because of privacy laws. Just recorded. But then when you read the fine prints, just as with Google and many others today, you’ll realize that the "recording" can still be accessed by the authorities for lawful purposes…
A few more years and police cars no longer will have to stop you to check you out. Another 10 years and the chip reader will be installed in every newly built home. You’ll be processed as you leave your house in the morning and tracked all day. Just watch Minority Report or Enemy of the State for very creative variants.
Do I care about what will happen in 10 or 20 year? Not really. Do I think we can stop all this from happening? Not really. It’s as unavoidable as the decay of bananas turning brown on my kitchen counter. However this is now and while the wheels are set in motion, the prospect appears quite scary. I don’t personally care that much about privacy and generally try to live a life that requires none – in other words, have nothing to hide and you’ll sleep better at night.
Still. I find the way we are introducing our very latest and most advanced Canadian piece of ID as a "US-trackable" upgrade, disturbing, to say the least.
*The privacy bubble is a concept of mine that represents the extent and strength of our own personal space from a privacy perspective. It used to be an impenetrable shield that could only be breached by close contact (we’re talking prehistoric times, here.) When written languages appeared, one’s privacy bubble shrunk a bit because of the possibility to leave – and find – records of one’s acts. Invention of the telephone shrunk the bubble even further by allowing long-distance – and hence uncontrolled – intrusions into one’s private life. But these were still passive attacks against the bubble. Nowadays, we are talking about very active threats: internet, government records, credit history, private and public surveillance cameras, border crossing control, tax records and all kinds of high-level and top-secret breaches of the system into one’s life. The EDL is just another step into the direction of a wide-open, no-privacy society. The bubble is shrinking. Will it pop? Should it?