The Invisible Pirate - Big Brother on Steroids

This edition covers digital IDs and an electronic monitoring system that will make your prescription history available nationally to thousands of strangers who will never be involved in your medical care in any way. If this isn't a recipe for abuse, unauthorized disclosure, and malfeasance, I don't know what is. You can expect the usual result: a black market for your personal information, with a large pool of people who will be more than willing to sell it to the highest bidder'like your soon-to-be-ex's attorney, nosy neighbors, political opponents, business competitors, muck-raking reporters, landlords, and unhappy in-laws.

Forget about federal law that prohibits prospective employers from asking you all kinds of personal questions. Prospective employers will simply peruse a copy of your prescription history, for a small fee, before your interview. As the cost of health insurance continues to soar, this tactic will become standard procedure. Soon, employers will not hire anyone with a history of prescription meds beyond the mundane, for all of the obvious reasons. If you think the State will safeguard your prescription history, keeping it from inquiring minds offering payment for disclosure, you need to ask your doctor to reduce the dosage of your meds.

RFID Passports Coming in December

Todd R.Weiss writes, "The U.S. government plans to begin issuing electronic passports in December that feature a built-in chip that contains information about the passport holder and facial-recognition capabilities. In an announcement this week, the U.S. Department of State said the first electronic passports will be issued only through the department; by October 2006 domestic passport agencies, such as local government offices and post offices, will be able to provide them. The use of electronic passports is being implemented to enhance document and border security and to make identification for international travel easier and more secure for U.S. citizens, the department says.

"The new passports will combine facial-recognition and contactless chip technology. The chip, which will be embedded in the cover of the passport, will hold the same information that is printed in today's paper passports, including the passport holder's name, date of birth, gender, place of birth, dates of passport issuance and expiration, passport number, and photo image. A digital signature will be used to protect the stored data from alteration and mitigate against photo substitutions. The digital photograph will also allow biometric comparisons using facial-recognition technology available at international borders, according to the agency.

"To prevent unauthorized reading, or 'skimming' of the data, antiskimming technology will be built into each electronic passport's front cover, according to the agency. Officials are also considering inclusion of basic access control technology that would prevent the data from being accessed until the passport is opened and its machine-readable zone on the data page is read electronically.

"Those built-in safeguards may not be enough, says Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy group. Earlier this year, the group joined other privacy groups in submitting comments to the State Department about the new passports, arguing that the security efforts don't do enough to protect Americans from unauthorized data theft. The proposed shielding may not work in all scenarios when a passport is opened and read, Tien says. 'We are very dubious of the need for any kind of electronic ID for security purposes,' he says. 'We have concerns that if they do implement it . . . that they are not planning on using any technological safeguards other than shielding to protect [the passports] from unauthorized reading. We believe more needs to be done. Given that they do seem to be going forward, they need to study and implement better privacy protection,' Tien says."

Privacy advocates insisted that this data be encrypted, but the State Dept. decided against it. Testing has shown that these RFID chips can be successfully read up to three feet away. What you need to know is that RFID scanners are cheap, readily available, and they are easy to use. Identity thieves may soon be having a field day. Stay tuned.

Digital Birth IDs in FL

Dara Kam writes, "Imagine a virtual 'thumbprint' that attaches your time and place of birth to your photo and iris scans ' one of millions collected, warehoused and monitored by the watchful eye of Big Brother. The technology is no longer just the stuff of science fiction. It's pretty much old news to tech-savvy security experts. Boring, even. No government has tried it out on a large scale, but Florida might become the first. A defense contractor has proposed that the state assign a 'digital birth certificate' to each of its 16 million residents, in what some experts say is the best way to protect privacy and others fear is an entr'e into a dystopian future. 'It is as Orwellian as you imagine it to be, and should be frightening,' said Oscar Gandy, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania 's Annenberg School of Communications who specializes in technology and public policy.

"The proposal comes in response to a law quietly passed on the last day of this year's legislative session and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. The law, which focuses on making family courts more efficient, includes a provision requiring a board of court-related officials to come up with a mechanism to create a 'unique personal identifier' to recognize individuals in court cases ' a step toward eliminating Social Security numbers as ID numbers. After Jan. 1, state law mandates that Social Security numbers be kept confidential in court records. The state is in the process of integrating county, circuit and appeals court systems into a cohesive unit accessible by judges, attorneys and law enforcement officials . . . . But the concept makes some privacy experts cringe.

"'I think it's very, very bad for security,' said Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and consultant. 'It brings us one step closer to a police state.' . . . The cost of implementing such a proposition probably would be prohibitive, Schneier said. But states may have to collect retinal scans or biometric data other than photographs for driver licenses and identification cards to comply with the recently passed federal Real ID Act. Driver license offices then would be outfitted with the equipment necessary for the digital birth certificate. The Real ID Act requires all states to comply with a national standard for identification cards within five years . . . .

"A government agency, such as the Florida Department of State, would issue a digital birth certificate that binds basic information ' name, date and place of birth ' and seals those to biometric identifiers such as fingerprints and iris scans. The state agency would keep an individual's file confidential, making it available only when that person gives permission. The state also could use it to verify the identities of criminals . . . .

"Still in the discussion phase, the digital birth certificate raises as many questions as it answers ' even to privacy experts, who liken the concept to an electronic numerical tattoo. For example, will the virtual documents be considered a public record? Will adults be forced to submit such intimate information to the state? What would be the penalty for those who refuse? Will it be accompanied by legislation preventing aggregation of the certificates with other personal information?

"None of that may matter to most people, the experts acknowledge, as Americans seem more willing to give up their privacy rights since the Sept. 11 attacks. 'We will take . . . all of your private and intimate details away and put them somewhere where other people can see them,' said Melissa Ngo of EPIC . 'People become so used to not having privacy that more and more privacy is taken away.'"

Complacent Americans are getting the Police State that they deserve.

Nationwide Electronic Prescription Monitoring

Jonathan M. Katz writes, "President Bush signed into law a bill to create electronic monitoring programs to prevent the abuse of prescription drugs in all 50 states. The new law creates a grant program for states to create databases and enhance existing ones in hopes of ending the practice of 'doctor shopping' by drug abusers seeking multiple prescriptions. It would authorize $60 million for the program through fiscal 2010. The bill, signed late Thursday at the president's Crawford , Texas , ranch, was sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican representing Kentucky 's 1st District.

" Kentucky 's existing electronic prescription monitoring database, called KASPER - Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting - would be eligible for enhancement grants under the bill. Establishing programs in adjacent states would help prevent abusers from crossing borders to get prescription drugs and then bring them back into Kentucky . 'It's going to be a tremendous boost (for the Kentucky program) and be much more effective,' Whitfield told The Associated Press.

"A July letter from the American Medical Association in support of the bill called prescription drug abuse 'one of the fastest growing public health problems' in the United States . The letter cited a 2002 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey that estimated there were 6.2 million recreational prescription drugs users then. The bill passed the House by voice vote and the Senate by unanimous consent in July.

"Robert Benvenuti, inspector general of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said he hadn't seen full details of the new law yet. However, Benvenuti said he thought it was going to 'be very positive' for Kentucky . 'If all states had the ability to tap into each others' information we would know that that person is doctor shopping,' Benvenuti said. 'It will allow states to see not only what's going on in their states but what's going on in other states.' . . .

"Some federal money has been appropriated for state monitoring programs in the past on a limited basis. Those grants were administered by the Department of Justice, but this law will place the program under the Department of Health and Human Services instead. 'This is a health problem, and the Department of Health and Human Services is the most logical place to run a prescription drug program,' Whitfield said.

"Some in Congress worry the law will invade privacy. 'This bill lacks fundamental privacy protections, such as notifying patients if their information has been lost or stolen,' said Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts , whose amendment to add that notification to the bill was defeated in committee. 'The lack of such safeguards virtually guarantees that this well-meaning effort to combat drug abuse will become a scandalous invasion of the privacy of innocent bystanders.'

"Whitfield said his staff worked with Markey and others to address many of those privacy concerns, including requiring states to have standards for the protection of information and requiring states to establish penalties for the unauthorized use of data. 'If we feel like it's being abused we would definitely take action,' Whitfield said."

The State, in its never-ending zeal to save us from ourselves, just opened a Pandora's box of personal information abuse, unauthorized disclosure, and malfeasance by those entrusted to keep your personal information private. Rest assured that when these inevitable events occur, the State will attempt to "fix" this law with yet another one, just like always.

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Joe Blow is a privacy advocate with proven subspecialties in strategic planning.  Note: Pirate Poop is now a free newsletter, available by email only. Send all subscription requests to