Commentary

Why Not Implant a Microchip?

Why bother with national ID cards? Some in America have sought such cards for years. The most recent type comes with magnetic strips and biometric identifiers. It’s being peddled by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) in concert with federal officials in the Department of Justice, Department of Transportation, the General Services Administration, and elsewhere. Yet these ID cards would be technologically obsolete before the system could be implemented. And think of the problems: physical cards can be counterfeited, damaged, misused, and more. Way too low-tech.

In their struggle to come up with a politically palatable national ID system, proponents of the ID card are being far too timid. So here’s a modest proposal: Why not implant a microchip under everyone’s skin?

If we mean to fully protect our security we should immediately seek federal legislation to establish standards for the implantation of microchips uniquely identifying each and every individual residing in this country, linked to central databases that could protect all Americans against terrorism. In fact, similar technology has been used in veterinary medicine for years to facilitate the return of lost dogs and cats to their owners.

The system could be voluntary at first, to allow time for Americans to get used to the idea. No doubt many Americans will quickly see the benefits of such an implant for themselves and their children. Think of it: a single microchip linked to a person’s medical records as well as financial, tax, employment, Social Security, welfare, criminal and other records—along with appropriate biometric identifiers. It would be so much more convenient and less subject to abuse than physical cards. Even if terrorism does not strike us again, Americans could be sure that if they had a medical emergency in a distant city, authorized physicians could scan the microchip to access the patient’s medical history and avoid administering an inappropriate—or potentially life-threatening—medicine.

Sound crazy? Well, it is. But as a thought experiment, it well illustrates how incremental incursions on liberty can lead to dramatic losses of privacy over time. Consider our experience with Social Security numbers.

People worried when the Social Security Act was passed in 1935 that the Social Security number (SSN) would become an all-purpose identifier—an understandable public response, at the time, to a rather dramatic institutional change. But government officials reassured the public that the SSN would not be used for any such purpose. Equally important, they showed restraint and only gradually expanded the federally mandated uses of the SSN—not mandating its use by other federal agencies until 1943. A step at a time, during the 1960s the SSN became the taxpayer identifier used by the IRS, the identifier for federal civilian and military personnel, the Medicare identifier, and more. In the 1970s Congress passed laws requiring the SSN’s use for legally admitted aliens and anyone seeking federal benefits—and also gave the states free rein to use SSNs for identification purposes. A series of federal laws passed in the 1980s required the issuance of SSNs to ever-younger children if their parents wanted to claim them as dependents on federal tax forms—by age 5, age 2, age 1, now at any age. People got used to it.

Legislators so far have failed to establish a national ID card with any real public traction—despite extraordinary efforts by some proponents. In 1996 Congress did pass one law to establish what amounted to a national ID card. It was a provision called “State-Issued Drivers Licenses and Comparable Identification Documents,” whose passage was achieved by placing it on page 716 of the 749-page Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, tucked between a section entitled “Sense of Congress on Discriminatory Application of New Brunswick Provincial Sales Tax” and another entitled “Border Patrol Museum.” But opponents discovered the measure, and it was repealed a few years later.

Now the AAMVA is proposing a similar system—this time initiated by state officials who are seeking federal financial, legislative, and rule-making support for their effort to turn American drivers’ licenses into national ID cards.

Over half of the population now supports some form of national identification. If Americans accept a National ID system as they accepted SSNs, and if the intrusiveness of such a system expands as did government-mandated SSN usage, ten years from now the idea of a national microchip system may not seem as alien and repugnant as it does today. As with SSNs, people will get used to it.

Charlotte A. Twight, professor of economics at Boise State University, is author of “Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans” (Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press, January 2002).