Commentary

The National ID Card: It’s Baaack!

By Stephen Moore
September 23, 1997

Recently, a congressional subcommittee held hearings on H.R. 231, legislation proposed by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., to “improve the integrity of the Social Security card.” McCollum’s bill would mandate a personal photograph on each Social Security card in order to make it as counterfeit-resistant as a passport. In theory, illegal aliens would be unable to use forged credentials when applying for jobs. Last year, McCollum narrowly failed to win passage of his bill in the House.

Supporters of the McCollum bill argue that making the Social Security card fraud-proof is far different from establishing the kind of internal passport system that typifies totalitarian regimes. In fact, there is even a section in McCollum’s bill reassuringly titled “NOT A NATIONAL IDENTIFICATION CARD.” But as the old saying goes: if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!

The McCollum bill, combined with legislation last year that established a pilot computerized worker registry system — the 1-800-BIG-BROTHER hotline — would put in place the entire infrastructure of a de facto national ID card system. McCollum says that his bill would require only a photograph — no fingerprints, retina scans or other biometric identifiers. But other proponents ask: why not? Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has suggested a Social Security card with “a magnetic strip on which the bearer’s unique voice, retina pattern, or fingerprint is digitally encoded.” One of the computer registry pilot projects calls for a “machine-readable card” to authenticate the citizenship of the job applicant.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the original purpose of the Social Security card. When the system was created in 1935, individual workers were assigned numbers so that the Treasury could properly account for the contributions made to the Social Security fund. To assuage the privacy concerns of American citizens, Congress insisted that the card would never be used for identification purposes. Sixty years later, Congress is thinking about breaking that promise.

History proves that government database and ID systems are often abused by government officials when the “crisis” of the moment — illegal immigration, handgun ownership, terrorism, drugs, etc. — trumps the protection of every American’s basic civil liberties and privacy rights. The confidentiality of Census Bureau information was violated in World War II to help move Japanese-Americans to internment camps. Earlier this year the Social Security Administration launched a Web site that allowed Internet hackers access to individuals’ payroll and benefit records. All a snoop needed was the target’s name, Social Security number, date and place of birth and mother’s maiden name. As Senator Grassley noted in a letter to the SSA requiring that the web site be suspended, the system was ripe for abuse “by everyone from nosy neighbors, to legal foes, to ex-spouses seeking financial support.”

In early 1995 more than 500 Internal Revenue Service agents were caught illegally snooping into the tax records of thousands of Americans — often friends and celebrities. The IRS claimed that its new privacy protection measures would protect against a recurrence. But earlier this year, scores of IRS agents were again caught illegally investigating taxpayers’ personal records. Technology has played a vital role in advancing freedom around the world, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But it has also laid new temptations at the doorstep of government and afforded new ways to micromanage people’s lives. It was, after all, just three years ago that Bill Clinton proposed a health security card for all Americans that might have contained the bearer’s lifetime medical records. It has even been suggested that one ID card could be used for both national health care and combatting illegal immigration.

A Social Security card containing a photograph could still be easily counterfeited in the black market along the border — just as counterfeit driver’s licenses from any state are readily available for $100 or less. Depending on how far Congress is willing to go in the effort to control illegal immigration, the technology exists for a much more fool-proof identification system. During the Olympics spectators and officials had to pass through fingerprint readers to gain access to certain events.

Hughes Aircraft Company now has a new identification technology involving a syringe-implantable transponder. Described as a “safe and inexpensive” worker identification technology, the procedure involves planting a tiny microchip under the skin. The chip contains a 10-character alphanumeric identification code that can never be duplicated. The microchip is read by an electronic scanner — the type that reads the price tag on the food you buy at the grocery store. The ID card is hardly a novel idea. The concept once surfaced in a Reagan cabinet meeting in 1981. Then-Attorney General William French Smith argued that a perfectly harmless ID card system would be necessary to reduce illegal immigration. A second cabinet member asked: why not tattoo a number on each American’s forearm? According to Martin Anderson, the White House domestic policy adviser at the time, Reagan blurted out “My god, that’s the mark of the beast.” As Anderson wrote, “that was the end of the national identification card” during the Reagan years. H.R. 231 is proof that bad ideas never die in Washington; they just wait for another day.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.