Getting to Know You

I ask that question in two senses: Who is the legal you - the person identified on your birth certificate, Social Security card, diplomas, driver's license, maybe a marriage certificate or passport?

Who are you?

I ask that question in two senses: Who is the legal you — the person identified on your birth certificate, Social Security card, diplomas, drivers license, maybe a marriage certificate or passport? And who is the social you — the person who lives, loves, works, plays, shops and holds certain rights to be inalienable?

Those two very different identities are about to be measured and tested in ways most of us probably never imagined.

The legal you is an increasingly documented entity, a single record in a vast and growing database. A political data point that was born with, has earned or has been granted certain rights and permissions — everything from driving a car or buying a beer to voting, and purchasing goods or services with a piece of plastic. Yet, if youre like most Americans, the one right you hold most sacred is not explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution — the right to privacy. The more you are documented, the less private you can be.

That conflict is about to become very heated.

As dueling standards emerged last month, it became clear that each of us is likely to become a fully documented digital entity. The only questions left are who will be doing the documenting, why will they be doing it and how will we protect our civil liberties?

In the private sector, digital identification is being pushed as a way of organizing and protecting the great Internet adventure. Microsoft expanded its Passport initiative into ambitious new areas of online and offline digital IDs, while a coalition of tech, financial, transportation and manufacturing companies joined Sun Microsystems in announcing a more open, modular and collaborative design. Either would ultimately accomplish the same objective: a single digital dossier that describes the social you and defines the legal you.

It isnt hard to find paranoid responses to these proposals. Mail lists, Web sites and my own inbox were riddled with conspiratorial rumors and theories. But there was nothing inherently evil about these proposals. In many ways, they are a reasonable step in the evolution of free-market commerce. If Im trying to sell you a book, a music recording or a new software design, I want to know everything I can about your tastes, your values and your interests, as well as whether you have the financial means and the legal right to buy my product.

Yes, this trespasses on your privacy, but you might well prefer the result. Targeted, meaningful advertising is certainly preferable to the never-ending spam that infests your inbox like a horde of virtual cockroaches breeding faster than you can stomp on them.

There is also a more basic, noncommercial argument for this kind of dossier. In the Internet, weve created a new nervous system for our species, and were just learning to control it. Like a wide-eyed newborn, we cant distinguish nerves from brain, stimulus from thought. The result is a mishmash of disorganized input that can be sorted out only by identifying each node in the network, its function, status and potential. As the Internet grows relentlessly toward ubiquity, each of us becomes a node in this massive neural network. We must identify ourselves, at least minimally, to make the system work.

The private sectors initiative is at least a somewhat flexible identification. If we so choose, we can resist by opting out, injecting disinformation or seeking hideaways of anonymity. Clearly, resistance will have consequences in the form of not being allowed to do or know certain things, but at least its an option. Far more disturbing are rumblings from the public sector, where certain politicians and intelligence agencies point to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in arguing for a national ID that would rigidly define the legal status of everyone who lives in the U.S., whether citizen or alien resident.

A commercial digital ID might be a great convenience in many ways. A combination license, passport, Social Security number, credit card, debit card and door key — an entire, bulging wallet on a single piece of data-impregnated plastic. But in Western democracies, where George Orwells 1984 is taught with apocalyptic zeal, the notion of an all-knowing government is terrifying. In a world committed to never forgetting victims of Nazi concentration camps, the grotesque image of numbers tattooed on human beings has forever equated forced identification with sheer evil.

I doubt those views changed on Sept. 11. Let the private sector identify us in ways that expand our options as consumers, while protecting our assets. Give law enforcement agencies access to those identities on a strictly controlled basis. But a government-enforced national ID is a greater abrogation of our privacy and freedom than can be justified by the current crisis.