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How a dog and some chocolate biscuits reveal an identity crisis in America

tumblr_lhypmjue3F1qhl096o1_500By Simon Davies

Overpriced bourbon isn’t the only reason why San Francisco’s International House of Wine & Liquor is noteworthy. The last time I was there a year or two ago, anyone of any age who buys a packet of cigarettes there is forced to disclose an identity document. A slightly luminescent pink sign on the front counter of this Geary Street checkpoint advises that the policy applies to all customers.

To the titillation of queuing customers I announced that this was the most absurd requirement in the known world and that they should reconsider.

As a bald, slightly respectable-looking middle aged man, this is an imposition I did not expect. To the titillation of queuing customers I announced that this was the most absurd requirement in the known world.

They didn’t budge. Aggressively, the guy at the front counter advised that this was “company policy”, in a tone that suggested I was an idiot for not realising that Company Policy trumped law. But more worryingly, he tried to assure everyone in the shop that this requirement was “police policy”.

If anyone reading this blog knows of any legally sustainable police policy in this vein, please do enlighten me. Come to think of it, what is “police policy” anyway? Is it an administrative condition where police arbitrarily advise local businesses what they should do? Is it like the legally dodgy concept of “community policy”?

Of course we promptly conducted a vox pop of a neighbouring business to make sure the police had not imposed this requirement, and  bemused staff said they had never heard of such a thing. They observed that people would vote with their wallets, which – in this case – they most certainly did.

This ludicrous irritation wouldn’t concern me so much if it hadn’t become so prevalent in the US – and elsewhere. Late last year while visiting Washington DC my colleague and I decided to visit a now-deceased club called Omega and were both clobbered with the same requirement. Then, a stony faced and now-unemployed bouncer presented me with the startling news that age identification for all patrons was “DC law”.

Americans have gone nuts over photo ID ever since 9/11. They can’t get enough of it.

Americans have gone nuts over photo ID ever since 9/11. They can’t get enough of it. Amtrak insists on such documentation, even though the company doesn’t have a clue what to do with the ID. People working at the reception desks of just about any office building require it. One friend was asked for photo ID when he tried to purchase some gardening equipment “in case the digging items are used in connection with explosives”. You know, that whole “garden spade – fertiliser – bomb” connection. Logical really.

At least Britain sort of got it half right. There, to make life easier for stores selling age-restricted items there’s a “Challenge 21” programme, so anyone looking 21 or under is asked for ID, even if the products are restricted to over-18s. Tesco and other large chain stores championed a “Challenge 25” programme just in case someone slipped through the net. Finally some idiot in the seaside resort of Blackpool came up with the idea of “Challenge 30”, which is roundly lambasted across Britain.

But at least these outlets demand high-integrity forms of ID such as driving licences. In the US you can show a picture of your dog pasted on the back of a chocolate biscuit and they’re likely to accept it.

In the US you can show a picture of your dog pasted on the back of a chocolate biscuit and they’re likely to accept it.

That’s because no-one really knows why they are asking for ID in the first place, and no-one up the chain tells them – mainly because they don’t know either. Everyone just goes through the motions. There’s no way to verify the validity of ID, so everyone just plods along with the security theatre.

I have tested the limits of this procedure. Once I was asked for ID at the reception of a large office building in New York. I asked the security guy why he needed it and his reply was “Don’t know – they never told me. It’s in my job specs”.

So, I dutifully showed the guy my ID, which in this case was an out of date London School of Economics pass-card that looked like it was created with fingernails and pointed sticks in a Guatemalan prison. He looked at the dog-eared item and returned it, only to be asked “So how do you know this isn’t fake?”

The beleaguered security man repeated what he had said earlier, and I asked to see his supervisor.

The supervisor said he didn’t know why his people were collecting ID’s or how they would validate them. “It’s just a requirement they made in the work contract”.

I went on up the chain, until finally, I had several security people, two supervisors of the security company and the contract manager for the building in a confused cluster, all agreeing that they didn’t know why they were demanding ID’s.

This insanity really does have to be evaluated. It’s the identity equivalent of the old “loitering” laws. At best it is a public nuisance; at worst it’s a threat to genuine security.

This insanity really does have to be evaluated. It’s the identity equivalent of the old “loitering” laws. At best it is a public nuisance; at worst it’s a threat to genuine security. The occasions where identity disclosure has real value are relatively rare, and in those cases there needs to be a properly constructed and privacy-sensitive policy in place. Right now anyone with access to a corner-stall five dollar document printer, can gain access into almost anywhere they choose. My dog photo will get me into everywhere else.

Of course I’m not saying we should maintain the status quo, with the additional imposition of higher value documents. It means getting the security modus operandi clear and then introducing a range of privacy friendly documents that are permission based (for example a card which does not reveal the holder’s identity – only the fact that the holder has certain permissions such as buying cigarettes).

This is one of those many circumstances where a privacy Tsar would be of real use in the US. Such an official could set out standards and guidelines so everyone would understand the limits of their responsibility and the real meaning of the law.

On the upside, at least the current madness creates a bigger market for the manufacturers of chocolate biscuits.