The first shocking headlines after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared revealed that two men had boarded with stolen passports. “Stark evidence of security gap,” blared The Christian Science Monitor.
It appears that illegal immigration, not terrorism, was the two Iranians’ intention. But media and governments across the globe shook their heads wildly that an airport security system had failed to check an international database for stolen passports.
In this country, a state-issued driver’s license is considered adequate identification for boarding a flight. Recall that after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed the Real ID Act to require states to issue counterfeit-proof driver’s licenses for this purpose.
Recall also that a coalition of conspiracy addicts (on the left and right) and privacy crusaders called Real ID an assault on our civil liberties. Imagine, the government taking away the right to impersonate others. It should have been a zero-brainer that without secure driver’s licenses, airport officials would have no idea who was boarding a plane.
Arguments leveled against Real ID are being recycled to bash the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. They inevitably lead to the assumption that the government is up to no good.
Now, one cannot vouch for the wisdom of every aspect of the NSA program to collect metadata on Americans’ communications. There’s always risk of abuse, and the agency hasn’t always been straightforward about what it does.
But the easily stoked hysteria over a program designed to stop terrorist attacks reflects two facts: One is that most people don’t know what metadata is. (It’s the numbers you dial, length of calls, email correspondence – not the content of these communications.) The other is that the United States hasn’t been subject to a major terrorist outrage in some time.
Back to Real ID. In 2008, the Electronic Privacy Information Center issued a 33-page report accusing government of pushing the secure driver’s license as a sneaky way to create a national ID card. (The belief is that such cards, common in Europe, are evil.)
Among EPIC’s concerns, existing technology would enable the driver’s licenses to also store credit card, library card and health care card data. There is a difference between being able to do something and legally doing it. Technology could let licenses also store pictures of naked babies. That doesn’t mean it would be so used.
EPIC complained that Real ID is not voluntary – that is, residents of states that don’t comply would be inconvenienced. Yeah, they wouldn’t be able to get on planes with fake IDs.
The NSA foes talk about government’s collecting “massive” amounts of data, when the concern should be on what, not how much. Would you prefer that the computers just comb through the communications of certain immigrant groups?
Of course, one may infer some personal details from numbers dialed. Some tea party types have fretted that the feds might go after members calling groups opposed to Obamacare. Like the NSA cares.
In EPIC’s defense, the advocacy group also takes private companies to task for grabbing data, although not with nearly the same passion it directs at government. Which takes us to the fact that the superpersonal information that privacy obsessives don’t want in the computers of the NSA is already in the computers of the phone company. You can always trust Verizon, right?
President Obama’s proposed change would have the phone companies store the data, which they already do. The NSA could review an individual’s record with a court order.
It’s not very fashionable to support such programs right now. But if – or rather when – another major terrorist attack occurs, the conversation will rapidly turn.
• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. he can be reached at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop.