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News & Features | Jan 18th, 2011

Identity Theft: Privacy Concerns Fly As Commerce Department Plans to Create Internet IDs

Elaine Rigoli

Big brother or enhanced cybersecurity?

commerce department

It's a toss-up between the two terms as Americans debate President Obama's decision to choose the U.S. Commerce Department to assign unique Internet IDs to better secure and protect consumers' online transactions.

Known officially as the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC, not to be confused with 90s boy-band 'NSYNC), the goal of the program is to keep consumers safe from identity theft crimes.

Full details of the new NSTIC program have yet to be released, though the government released a draft in June 2010 (click here to review the full PDF document) that may offer a glimpse into how the Commerce Department would structure its program.

However, there are already people questioning whether the Commerce Department can guard users' privacy and security above the government's own interests.

For example, should a group whose purpose is to oversee how Americans buy, sell, and trade goods the best choice to assign these Internet IDs?

E-Commerce and Identity Theft

Commerce Department Secretary Gary Locke, who announced the NSTIC program late last week, said this is not the equivalent of a national ID card. With e-commerce estimated at $10 trillion dollars annually, Locke says the privacy-enhancing "identity ecosystem" would minimize online identity theft and safeguard online transactions since less personal information will be collected and stored for each transaction.

Locke, who spoke at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research event (click here to watch the conference YouTube video), revealed that:

"The Internet still faces something of a 'trust' issue, and it will not reach its full potential until users and consumers feel more secure than they do today when they go online. The threats on the Internet seem to be proliferating just as fast as the opportunities; data breaches, malware, ID theft, and spam are just some of the commonly known invasions of a user's privacy and security."

Indeed, Fast Company tech blogger Kalyia Hamlin points out that the NSTIC program could reduce the number of passwords people need and streamline authentication measures to allow users to confirm that the site they are intending to do business with is legitimate.

Private Sector Weighs In

Yet some feel that the private sector -- not the government -- should create this Internet ID.

Phil Bond, the CEO of TechAmerica, told the Phoenix Business Journal that "the tech industry must drive implementation of the national strategy."

Jim Dempsey, a technology and privacy expert, told CNET News: "The government cannot create that identity infrastructure. If it tried to, it wouldn't be trusted."

The American Civil Liberties Union dislikes the idea altogether, pointing out that a government effort to combat cybercrime could erase online privacy and anonymity. The ACLU's Public Education Director Jay Stanley writes in The Huffington Post that "the ability to figure out who has done something bad after the fact is the same online as it is offline — it can only be assured if everyone is tracked, all of the time, and that is not an acceptable tradeoff in a free society."

The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia, was perhaps a bit more blunt: "And we saw how well that security thing worked out with WikiLeaks, didn’t we?"

Where do you stand on this potentially controversial issue?

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