Show me your papers

That is the question the ruckus about Arizona making federal law on immigration a state matter as well brings to the fore. Stewart Baker says Dick Durbin is right at the Volokh Conspiracy (Words I never expected to write).

Sen. Durbin is defending the decision. “People understand that in this vulnerable world, we have to be able to present identification,” Durbin said to The Hill. “We want it to be reliable, and I think that’s going to help us in this debate on immigration.”

There is a lot of misunderstanding goin’ on here and you can see it in the comments.

First is that there is an error free method of determining identification and second, what the process really is.

Establishing an identity is a matter of three parties. The first party is the person who is making a claim about his identity. The second is the party, the ‘gatekeeper,’ that needs assurance about the identity of the first person. The third party is someone the second can trust who knows the first and can qualify the claims about identity. The issue is all about this third party and the communications required between that authority and the gatekeeper.

In the past, this communication has been a problem. That is why passports were invented. These are special letters designed to be difficult to counterfeit that help to establish identity requirements. The authority depends upon possession of the document as well as correlation between data in the document and the individual carrying it. Driver’s licenses took on the role in the past as a secondary, and less authoritative identity mechanism in the past. Current law seeks to elevate the authority of such documents.

It should be noted that these identity establishment documents do not address the actual question a gatekeeper needs answered. This question might be things such as ‘are you qualified to work here?’ or ‘are you a citizen of this country?’ or ‘how old are you?’ or ‘is there any reason we should not allow you on this airplane?’ An identity document such as a passport or drivers license just passes the question to some issuing authority that is burdened with answering the common questions. Special questions then require linking that document with some other authority.

Modern communications and other technologies open up other possibilities with implications on the historical procedures. Instead of having to determine if a document is counterfeit or not and interpreting the quality and worthiness of the information in it, he could communicate directly with the authoritative source. He could communicate what he sees and measures about the claimant and the knowledge of that claimant that he can determine via questions and ask the authority to verify the claim based on this assessment. Instead of a birth certificate, just ask the hospital or, more likely, the county of birth, if a person with this name was born at this place on this date with these parents and who matched other criteria. Or ask a college if this person graduated with this degree at this time and had this GPA. Or ask a government if a person meeting the characteristics of this person is known to it as a criminal.

There is still a lot more trust in a gatekeeper evaluating document credibility and correlating its information to a claim than there is in direct query with automatically collected measures. That shows in all of the concern about ‘identity theft’ as well. There are also concerns about data accumulation and sharing by governmental entities. Other concerns involve communications security and quality assurance of data that is maintained. Solutions to these concerns are being found but it appears it will be a long road towards acceptance. In the meantime ‘show me your papers’ is going to be an ongoing hassle in any interaction with society where who you are is a concern.

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