Commentary

If You Value Privacy, Resist Any Form of National ID Cards

The Chinese telecom company ZTE is helping the Venezuelan government build a network for its “Fatherland Card,” an ID card that is being increasingly linked to government services. The Fatherland Card provides access to troves of personal information including political affiliation, medical history, employment status, and much more. What was ostensibly designed to provide millions of Venezuelans with documentation required for opening a bank account or voting has morphed into an ID card program ideal for authoritarian government.

It’s distressing, but not surprising, that the Chinese and Venezuelan governments are colluding to further erode their citizens’ privacy.

Defenders of E-Verify and REAL ID may claim that worries that these systems will develop into a national ID are overblown and that civil libertarians are being hyperbolic. But history is on the side of those sounding the alarm.

In the U.S., we’re nowhere close to living under the degree of surveillance seen in Venezuela or China. Nonetheless, we must remain vigilant for calls for increased data gathering and national ID systems that put our privacy at risk, especially those calls that are couched in the name of immigration enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts. These ID proposals, if left unchecked, will diminish the freedom to travel and work, and expose more details of our private lives to the authorities.

Americans have historically been resistant to the kind of compulsory ID card schemes seen around the world. Yet before Trump’s presidency there were bipartisan calls for ID cards as a tool of immigration enforcement. In March, 2010 Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue for a national biometric ID card as a means to tackle illegal immigration. Fortunately, Sens. Schumer and Graham failed to get their proposed mandated ID passed into law.

Yet ID schemes already exist in the U.S., and proposals for government data-gathering only add to a growing identity infrastructure framework.

One such scheme the current administration supports is E-Verify, a voluntary Department of Homeland Security system designed to allow employers to check the employment eligibility of new hires. E-Verify is an inefficient and expensive system that should be scrapped.

Yet despite the problems associated with E-Verify, many of those calling for crackdowns on illegal immigration are also pushing to mandate the system nationwide. Such calls pose a significant risk to our privacy. To fix E-Verify, DHS would need more information, perhaps including biometrics such as fingerprints and facial images related to U.S. citizens.

ID systems are not only discussed in the context of immigration enforcement. The threat of terrorism also provides fertile ground for national ID proposals. REAL ID, created in 2005, outlines federal requirements for state drivers licenses in order for them to be accepted by agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration. According to DHS, REAL ID enacts the 9/11 Commission report recommendation that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification.” In order to be REAL ID compliant, states must not only adhere to federal standards but also share information included on drivers licenses on a national network.

Although some states initially rejected REAL ID, every state is now complying with at least some portions of the system. While the federal government can’t directly coerce states into compliance, it can provide plenty of incentives. According to the TSA, drivers licenses that aren’t REAL ID compliant will not be considered a valid form of ID from October 1, 2020, onwards.

Defenders of E-Verify and REAL ID may claim that worries that these systems will develop into a national ID are overblown and that civil libertarians are being hyperbolic. But history is on the side of those sounding the alarm.

Shortly after the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, the use of Social Security numbers was limited to the identification of earnings covered by the new program. Since 1935, the use of SSNs has spread beyond government and into the private sector, regularly being used by credit bureaus, hospitals, and educational institutions.

We should therefore be wary when advocates for biometric Social Security cards, mandatory E-Verify, and REAL ID tell us the use of these systems will be limited. As current ID systems expand they could easily morph into a de facto national ID scheme, with compliance required for air travel, gun purchases, banking, and much more.

The United States is a long way from implementing the degree of surveillance and authoritarianism seen in Venezuela and China. Nonetheless, plenty of immigration and terrorism-related proposals and schemes risk setting us down the slippery slope towards an identification system that’s a national ID in all but name.

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.