July 16, 2024

Dean's Smart-Card Speech

Declan McCullagh at CNet news.com criticizes a speech given by Howard Dean about two years ago, in which Dean called for aggressive adoption of smartcard-based state driver’s licenses and smartcard readers. Declan highlights the privacy-endangering aspects of the smartcard agenda, and paints Dean as a hypocrite for pushing that agenda while positioning himself as pro-privacy.

Larry Lessig (among others) argues that Declan mischaracterized Dean’s speech, and urges people to read the text of Dean’s speech. Others have compared this incident to Declan’s infamous role in manufacturing the “Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet” meme back in 2000.

There is certainly a disconnect between the tone of Declan’s article and that of Dean’s speech. Reading the speech, we see Dean genuflecting properly, and at length, to the importance of privacy. We don’t hear about that in Declan’s article.

But Declan’s omissions aren’t the whole story. The first half of Declan’s piece quotes extensively from Dean’s speech, and it portrays accurately the technical proposal that Dean was endorsing. Declan’s reaction to that technical agenda is not unreasonable. For example, a National Academy study report on national ID technologies took a position closer to Declan’s than to Dean’s.

The fact is that there is a deep disconnect between the different sections of Dean’s speech. It’s hard to reconcile the privacy-is-paramount part of the speech with the smartcards-everywhere part. At least, it’s hard to reconcile them if you really understand the technology. Dean makes a compelling argument that computer security is important, and he makes an equally compelling argument in favor of preserving privacy. But how can we have both? Enter the smartcard as deus ex machina. It sounds good, but unfortunately it’s not a technically sound argument.

Now, nobody expects state governors to understand technology well enough to spot the technical flaws in Dean’s speech. Probably, nobody advising Dean at the time had the knowledge to notice the problem. That’s not good; but it hardly makes Dean unique.

At bottom, what we have here is a mistake by Dean, in deciding to give a speech recommending specific technical steps whose consequences he didn’t fully understand. That’s not good. But on the scale of campaign gaffes, this one seems pretty minor.

[Disclaimer: My longstanding policy is to avoid partisan politics on this blog. I’m commenting on this issue because of my expertise in computer security, and not to make a political point or to urge anyone to vote for or against Dean.]


  1. Hi Seth,
    I was really just referring to the Dean part of this controversy in my comments.

    I think Declan sometimes goes off base, though I very much appreciate some of his work, and the fact that he is maintaining archives of some very important stuff that no one else has done, things that are government related, that have otherwise been taken offline. As well, he highlights issues in his columns that can be very good.

    However, quite a while ago I realized that I had to take everything he says with a big grain of salt, because he also does stuff like the Dean column, or the DMCA thing, or whatever. I have no problem with him criticizing people (those I like or respect, too), in a reasonable way, but occasionally he goes too far, or is just outright ridiculous in some cases. I am all for following what he does and making more explicit these rants, exposing the lapses in logic as well as the venomous aspects. I think Dana Blankenhorn is right in assessing Declan as being part of the problem with the columns of the Dean/Lessig/Gore sort you are both referring to in your comments. In these cases, he’s not helping at all to get to some sort of truth about his subject or these issues.

  2. Mary: For a taste of what Howard Dean could expect in reply, take a look at the recent Declan McCullagh hatchet-job on Lessig, particularly how Declan twisted everything to his own ends. I just compared Declan McCullagh’s “journalism” to _Bloom County_:

    [Scene: Declan McCullagh, err Milo Bloom, at reporter’s desk in newsroom, on telephone]

    Milo: Senator? This is Milo Bloom at the BEACON. Will you confirm that
    you sunk Jimmy Hoffa in your backyard pond?

    Bedfellow: What? Of course not!
    Milo: Fine. I’ll go with “Sen. Bedfellow denies that pond is where he
    sunk Hoffa.”

    Bedfellow: That’s NOT TRUE!
    Milo: Okay. “Bedfellow DID sink Hoffa in pond”.

    Bedfellow: I DON’T KNOW where Hoffa is!!
    Milo: “‘I lost the body’ says Bedfellow.”

    It’s worth noting that the only list reply he’s posted as I write this, is titled “More on Dean wanting to implant smartcard readers in PCs”

    Declan will twist any reply along of the lines of “Dean backs off Big Brother plan, due to pressure from heroic reporting and public protest!”

    Recall also Declan’s DMCA bomb-throwing.

    Not to mention Al Gore.

    He does this, basically, fabrication, over and over, it never catches up to him.

  3. You wrote:

    At bottom, what we have here is a mistake by Dean, in deciding to give a speech recommending specific technical steps whose consequences he didn’t fully understand. That’s not good.

    Now, I know you also wrote:

    My longstanding policy is to avoid partisan politics on this blog.

    But this is what happens in politics, and this is what Declan did to Dean’s speech. He effectively quoted the first and ignored the second.

    What you wrote will be misinterpreted — twisted actually — in the same way.

    And this game of “gotcha” designed to keep the same phony-baloney in power is what Declan is all about. It’s good for his business.

    So I don’t really think the issue here is politics. It’s business.

  4. I with you on this. We have all learned/changed/evolved over the past couple of years in our understandings and views of the interent, digital media, security and privacy. Dean may have made a mistake, and I don’t see why he can’t be asked now about what he thinks. I’m not for or against Dean either, just think that there is room for people’s views to evolve, expecially on issues around changing technology and policy, and we should give people the room to adjust or reflect new understanding of this stuff.