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.]