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Privacy Piracy?

What Howard Dean May Bring to the DNC

by JOSHUA FRANK

A year before Howard Dean announced his bid for the presidency; he spoke at a Pittsburg event sponsored by a "smart-card" firm, Wave Systems, which was a sure sign Dean was fast running away from his grassroots support, and right into the arms of the corporate elite. At the conference Dean announced that he hoped to one day implement a national identification card that would discourage online terrorism and identity theft, which would ultimately make Wave Systems a very rich corporation.

"We must move to smarter license cards that carry secure digital information that can be universally read at vital checkpoints," Dean explained during his speech in March 2002. "Issuing such a card would have little effect on the privacy of Americans." Dean’s Star Trek like fantasy went as far as to state that the Federal government should mandate the implementation of ID card readers in all personal computers. The computer could then only be accessed once the system user inserted his or her national ID number into the security login.

"One state’s smart-card driver’s license must be identifiable by another state’s card reader," said Dean. "It must also be easily commercialized by the private sector and included in all PCs over time-making the Internet safer and more secure."

"On the Internet, this card will confirm all the information required to gain access to a state (government) network-while also barring anyone who isn’t legal age from entering an adult chat room, making the Internet safer for our children, or prevent[ing] adults from entering a children’s chat room and preying on our kids … Many new computer systems are being created with card reader technology. Older computers can add this feature for very little money," Dean said.

"In an age where identity and trust are paramount, the fact remains that the only viable form of universal identity in the US today is the state-issued driver’s license," Dean added. "Think about it: When you entered the airport or the train station to travel to this conference, how many times did you use your driver’s license to prove your identity? Remember-this is the same driver’s license that teenagers alter in order to get into a club or buy cigarettes. Terrorists do it all the time. They did it on September 11."

Despite Dean’s good intentions, such a card, if implemented, would pry into the private acts of individuals on their home computers. The government would be allowed to track all actions made by citizens via the Internet. Sounds like an Orwellian nightmare-one that Republicans would most certainly be ridiculed by privacy groups for endorsing.

"I’m from Vermont and believe me, government is kept at a respectful but very conscious distance," Dean said. "Reality demands that we understand, first, that the rise of empowered individuals whose single mission is to destroy Americans means that we have to fight them at an INDIVIDUAL level and second-that we have already ceded our private information to faceless credit card companies and direct marketers who then sell it for a profit. Now-I believe that our nation has the technological capacity to protect both our privacy and our way of life."

He touted, "We will not, and should not, tolerate a call to erode privacy even further-far from it. Americans can only be assured that their personal identity and information are safe and protected when they are able to gain more control over this information and its use."

Although Dean may still contend that his ID vision is revolutionary, other civil liberty and privacy activists are skeptical such a system would actually protect privacy. Declan McCullagh quoted Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberties program at the American Civil Liberties Union, as saying, "[Dean's idea] won’t even work to protect against terrorism because we know that some of the 9-11 terrorists had phony driver’s licenses that they were able to buy on the black market."

In the same January 26, 2004 News.com article, McCullagh quoted Chris Hoofnagle, the associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center: "I know of no other Democratic candidate who has this view on national ID. I hope that [Dean will] reconsider his policy on national ID because it has significant effects on individuals’ right to privacy and does not make the country more secure. If you think about it, the implication is that children would have to be issued cards as well. Are we talking about ID cards from birth?"

The only response offered up by the Dean camp on this matter was, "No comment."

***

As Howard Dean planned his race for the White House he must have thumbed through George W. Bush’s campaign playbook. Within the first four months of Dean’s announcement of his bid for the White House, he had amassed over $110,000 in donations from people with ties to the Fund for a Healthy America, a Vermont utility group.

On February 27, 2002, David Gram of the Associated Press reported: "One donor who gave Dean’s PAC the maximum amount allowed- $5,000 is Robert Young a top official at two utility companies that have had a lot of important business before state government during Dean’s nearly 11 years in office. Young is chief executive at Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and chairman of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp."

Although Dean’s campaign spokesperson Kate O’Conner said it would be absurd for anybody to think donations to the Dean campaign bought access, Dean seemed to believe otherwise. "People who think they’re going to buy a contract are mistaken," he stated in 1996 during the campaign reform bill debates. "But they do get access-there’s no question about that … They get me to return their phone calls."

And indeed they did. As Gram wrote, during Dean’s transition into the governor’s mansion, he called on utility executives to help with the change of office. It’s no coincidence that those executives’ businesses benefited greatly. Notes Gram:

"-After years of pushing for the companies to absorb the excess costs of their expensive contract with Hydro-Quebec, Dean’s Department of Public Service agreed to let ratepayers be billed for more than 90 percent of what those excess costs are expected to be in the coming years. The extra costs will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"-The department also agreed to allow the utilities to sell Vermont Yankee to a Pennsylvania company for a price that was expected to be $23.8 million by the time the deal closed. Shortly before the Public Service Board was to make a final decision on that sale, another company stepped in and offered more than seven times as much. That sale to Entergy Nuclear Corp. is currently before the board

"–After it became clear in the late 1990s that selling Vermont Yankee was a top goal of the utilities, the administration failed to heed warnings for more than two years that the money the nuclear plant was paying for emergency planning was much less than was needed. An administration official said there was concern about interfering with the sale."

When it comes to the matter of campaign contributors, James Dumont, a lawyer for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, seems to have hit the nail on the head, contending: "They [Dean Administration] didn’t bite the hand that fed them."

With all this in mind, it is safe to say that if Howard Dean miraculously pulls off a victory and climbs into the throne of DNC chair, we can be certain that Dean will raise money for the Democrats by hob-knobbing with businesses like Wave Systems.

JOSHUA FRANK is the author of the forthcoming book, Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, to be released in early 2005 by Common Courage Press.