Getting past 1984

Recently I wrote about the need for a voluntary, verifiable digital ID for internet-connected computers

Recently I wrote about the need for a voluntary, verifiable digital ID for internet-connected computers. That's controversial, but not nearly as polarising as the concept of wireless IDs. That brings to mind government-mandated tracking implants that turn us all into moving blips on a giant screen in Washington.

I don't believe a mandated tracking system would work — hackers would be teleporting their blips to the Gobi desert — and in any case, I see no justification for it. However, I like the idea of a voluntary short-range personal ID. A parent so inclined might Krazy Glue or lacquer a chip to a child's toenail. Caretakers of the elderly and infirm could do the same for their at-risk charges. Hikers, climbers, skiers, and boaters would happily equip themselves with IDs to aid rescuers and to keep the group together when they're not in sight of one another.

Here's what I imagine: You buy a wireless ID kit at a department store. Krazy Glue the ID to the person you want to protect. You don't register the ID when you buy it. The ID knows nothing about you and you're not in anybody's database.

The chip sends out its ID periodically, but it's just one number in an ocean of numbers until you decide to link the ID to contact information. That could be a local affair: A ski lodge could register its patrons, a park ranger could collect the IDs of those who wish to register. Parents could subscribe to a service that conceals their private data until they get a PIN-encoded activation call.

Considering the short range of any reasonably portable, wearable transmitter, who would hear it? That's the question that gets folks rattled. No one can imagine a system like this working unless it's mandatory and monitored by the government and law enforcement. But the police don't want more doodads on their dashboards. G-men have better things to do than to tally how many trips you've made to Krispy Kreme.

Still, if you can't stomach the idea of public entities listening for IDs, think about alternatives. A private system could make use of roving Samaritans everywhere: Amateur radio operators, neighbourhood watch, volunteer fire and ambulance, trail guides, storm spotters, or neighbors and friends. I envision publicly operated networks that make activation broadcasts to designated groups of listeners. Anyone with a receiver who drives or walks within range of an activated ID can call a contact number sent out with the activation broadcast. Chosen friends can drive a grid around your neighborhood in search of a tagged person or item, and nobody outside your circle of trust needs to know that ID even exists.

A dab of nail polish remover would be all that's required to take someone off the radar. If you're carrying an activated ID with linked personal data, remove it and take a hammer to it. Whack! You don't exist.

This is just a pipe dream scenario, full of technical and practical holes, but it's a skeleton of an end-to-end personal ID plan that doesn't get the government involved. We shouldn't erect roadblocks to useful technology because it might be misused. If you don't trust the local police, or the Feds, or Wal-Mart, don't glue chips to your toes, or don't tell them anything about the ID you're wearing. But let technology evolve and let people dream about how it will be used.

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