TechKnowledge No. 21

National ID Cards: New Technologies, Same Bad Idea

By Adam D. Thierer
September 28, 2001

Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle, made headlines recently when he advocated the creation of a national ID card system as a way to address airport security in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. “We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card,” Ellison said. And to get things rolling, Ellison has even offered to “provide the software for this absolutely free,” he said.

While the Bush Administration has wisely said national ID cards are not an option, apparently some members of Congress are considering taking Ellison up on his offer. For example, in recent press events where the question of national ID cards came up, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said, “We are in a new world. This event will change the balance between freedom and security.” Rep. Mary Bono (R-Cal.) has also argued that, “When we consider ourselves to be at war, people are going to have to recognize that some of their freedoms are going to be gone. Whether we are talking about national ID cards I don’t know, or fingerprinting everybody, I don’t know where we are going to go with security.” (She later recanted the remark, however.) And Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, has told the press that proposals to mandate national ID cards should not be dismissed out of hand.

Proposals to sacrifice civil liberties during wartime, as has occurred during past wars, will remain unsettling to many Americans, however, and nowhere is this more clearly the case than with proposals to demand that all Americans carry national IDs. National ID cards are not a new idea. As was discussed in a 1995 Cato Policy Analysis, national ID card proposals were most recently considered as a possible solution to illegal immigration. Similar national identifier proposals have arisen in debates over gun control, national health care, and Social Security reform. Moreover, many other countries currently require that their citizens carry some type of identity card.

What is new about the various national ID card proposals is that they have become more technologically sophisticated. The prospect of massive computer databases or registries, software data collection systems, digital fingerprinting, handprint scans, facial recognition technologies, voice authentication devices, electronic retinal scans, and other “biometric” surveillance technologies have suddenly become realistic options for government identification purposes. If Americans are concerned about the recent proliferation of traffic surveillance cameras on roadways and sidewalks, then they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

But while the technologies may have changed, the fundamental problems with national ID cards have not. The most serious problem with national ID mandates remains the troubling ramifications for civil liberties. As former California Rep. Tom Campbell, currently a Stanford University law professor, has recently argued, “If you have an ID card, it is solely for the purpose of allowing the government to compel you to produce it. This would essentially give the government the power to demand that we show our papers. It is a very dangerous thing.”

Indeed it is. As David Kopel, research director for the Colorado-based Independence Institute, has similarly argued, “We beat the Germans in World War II. We don’t want to be a show-us-your-papers kind of country.” And as Cato Institute President Ed Crane told the Washington Times recently, “We live in a free society and our first right is a certain level of privacy. We shouldn’t be forced to show our papers wherever we go.” While proponents of national ID cards will contend that such concerns are overblown, there is no denying that a national ID card could become the equivalent of a domestic passport that citizens are required to produce for the most routine daily tasks.

The other serious problem with national ID cards is more practical: They probably won’t work. For example, who will be issuing these cards? If everyone is required to have one, then that means there will be a lot of bureaucrats responsible for collecting and filing our personal information. Beyond logistical questions about how that process will work and how much it will cost, it raises concerns about potential fraud and abuse.

Consider how easy it is to forge a driver’s license in America today. Many teenagers routinely engage in identity theft or forgery when they create fake ID cards in an attempt to prove they are older than 21 years of age. As a recent USA Today feature story illustrated, the Internet and digital technologies have made do-it-yourself ID forgery easier than ever before. “Gone are the crude, cut-and-paste fake IDs common a few years ago that were so obviously bogus. They have been replaced with replicas whose detail and accuracy often astonish authorities,” the paper reported. The story noted that, “The new fake IDs may not exactly match state-issued ones, but often they’re good enough to fool bartenders, nightclub doormen and, sometimes, police officers.” In light of the fact that teenagers are able to so easily forge new identities merely in an attempt to get into a nightclub, imagine what individuals with truly malevolent intentions would be able to do with national ID cards.

Moreover, bureaucrats could also be bribed or forcibly coerced into divulging information or producing fake ID cards. More realistically, hackers could invade centralized databases and distort or steal personal information. In any event, human error is a real possibility. As Jonathan S. Shapiro, an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Computer Science, has pointed out, airport security guards and other officials, “think they are relying on the cards when in fact they are relying on the integrity of the human process by which the cards are issued.” In other words, an over-reliance on technology might end up giving us a false sense of security.

The bottom line is that mandatory national ID cards aren’t going to help us catch many bad guys. While the first responsibility of government is to protect our lives and property, we shouldn’t rush into giving up some of our freedoms unnecessarily. We need things that actually matter, not just symbolic gestures. Instead of providing such a meaningful solution, national ID cards will become, at a minimum, an unnecessary nuisance for most citizens. Worse yet, in extreme cases, it could produce massive breaches of individual privacy.

And at the end of the day, all this goes to show that theories about war and the growth of government are more true than ever. Notes Robert Higgs, author of Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, “As a cause of the development of big government in the United States… war seldom receives its due.” If federal policymakers begin requiring that all Americans carry a national ID card, it could constitute one of the most significant increases in government power in our nation’s history.

Adam Thierer (athierer [at] cato [dot] org) is the Director of Telecommunications Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.