Erik Barnett, an assistant deputy director at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and attache to the European Union at the Department of Homeland Security, has written an article titled “Whose Privacy Are We Protecting? Balancing Rights to Anonymity with Rights to Public Safety,” published in FIC Observatory, a French publication covering cybersecurity.
As the “use of technology by human beings grows and we look at ethical and philosophical questions surrounding ownership of data and privacy interests, we must start to ask how much of the user’s data is fair game for law enforcement to protect children from sexual abuse?” Barnett writes.
He then suggests a license for internet users.
“When a person drives a car on a highway, he or she agrees to display a license plate. The license plate’s identifiers are ignored most of the time by law enforcement. Law enforcement will use the identifiers though to determine the driver’s identity if the car is involved in a legal infraction or otherwise becomes a matter of public interest. Similarly, should not every individual be required to display a ‘license plate’ on the digital super-highway? What level of public interest should be required by law enforcement to read that license plate?” he writes.
Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, weighed in on the proposal:
Luckily, this proposal is plainly unconstitutional. https://t.co/ZAHI5ECMhI
— Nate Cardozo (@ncardozo) January 19, 2016
Barnett is wrong on one count. Police currently use high-resolution digital cameras mounted on police vehicles to scan the license plates of thousands of citizens who have not committed a crime. The information—date, time and GPS location—gathered from unsuspecting drivers is then matched to federal and state databases.
The practice is clearly unconstitutional.
“One problem is it bypasses the Fourth Amendment,” explains John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute. “The Fourth Amendment is really clear that you’re supposed to have probable cause before you do that.”
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has noted, anonymous communications “have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
The 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission states: “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”
Considering the behavior of government and its obsession with gathering information on political opponents—for instance, the practice of gathering license plate numbers at political rallies (see this story)—the idea that every person on the internet must have a singular identifier is a proposal designed to be used to monitor and possibly discredit opponents.
The state already has the ability to identify and track most people on the internet. The NSA specializes in this and has developed advanced technology for the purpose. Barnett’s idea would merely make the practice that much easier. It would also serve to dampen political activity and controversial ideas.