National ID Cards: New Technologies, Same Bad Idea

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Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle, made headlinesrecently when headvocated the creation of a national ID card system as a way toaddress airport security in the wake of the September 11 terroristattacks. "We need a national ID card with our photograph andthumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card," Ellison said.And to get things rolling, Ellison has even offered to "provide thesoftware for this absolutely free," he said.

While the Bush Administration has wisely saidnational ID cards are not an option, apparently some members ofCongress are considering taking Ellison up on his offer. Forexample, in recent press events where the question of national IDcards came up, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said,"We are in a new world. This event will change the balance betweenfreedom and security." Rep. Mary Bono (R-Cal.) has also arguedthat, "When we consider ourselves to be at war, people are going tohave to recognize that some of their freedoms are going to be gone.Whether we are talking about national ID cards I don't know, orfingerprinting everybody, I don't know where we are going to gowith security." (She laterrecanted the remark, however.) And Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.),chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, has told the pressthat proposals to mandate national ID cards should not be dismissedout of hand.

Proposals to sacrifice civil liberties during wartime, as hasoccurred during past wars, will remain unsettling to manyAmericans, however, and nowhere is this more clearly the case thanwith 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 apossible solution to illegal immigration. Similar nationalidentifier proposals have arisen in debates over gun control,national health care, and SocialSecurity reform. Moreover, many othercountries currently require that their citizens carry some typeof identity card.

What is new about the various national ID cardproposals is that they have become more technologicallysophisticated. The prospect of massive computer databases orregistries, software data collection systems, digitalfingerprinting, handprint scans, facial recognition technologies,voice authentication devices, electronic retinal scans, and other"biometric"surveillance technologies have suddenly become realisticoptions for government identification purposes. If Americans areconcerned about the recent proliferation of traffic surveillancecameras on roadways and sidewalks, then they ain't seen nothin'yet.

But while the technologies may have changed, the fundamentalproblems with national ID cards have not. The most serious problemwith national ID mandates remains the troubling ramifications forcivil liberties. As former California Rep. Tom Campbell, currentlya Stanford University law professor, hasrecently argued, "If you have an ID card, it is solely for thepurpose of allowing the government to compel you to produce it.This would essentially give the government the power to demand thatwe show our papers. It is a very dangerous thing."

Indeed it is. As David Kopel, research director for theColorado-based Independence Institute, has similarly argued, "We beat the Germans in World War II. Wedon't want to be a show-us-your-papers kind of country." And asCato Institute President Ed Crane told theWashington Times recently, "We live in a free societyand our first right is a certain level of privacy. We shouldn't beforced to show our papers wherever we go." While proponents ofnational ID cards will contend that such concerns are overblown,there is no denying that a national ID card could become theequivalent of a domestic passport that citizens are required toproduce for the most routine daily tasks.

The other serious problem with national ID cards is morepractical: They probably won't work. For example, who will beissuing these cards? If everyone is required to have one, then thatmeans there will be a lot of bureaucrats responsible for collectingand filing our personal information. Beyond logistical questionsabout how that process will work and how much it will cost, itraises concerns about potential fraud and abuse.

Consider how easy it is to forge a driver's license in Americatoday. Many teenagers routinely engage in identity theft or forgerywhen they create fake ID cards in an attempt to prove they areolder than 21 years of age. Asa recent USA Today feature story illustrated, theInternet and digital technologies have made do-it-yourself IDforgery easier than ever before. "Gone are the crude, cut-and-pastefake IDs common a few years ago that were so obviously bogus. Theyhave been replaced with replicas whose detail and accuracy oftenastonish authorities," the paper reported. The story noted that,"The new fake IDs may not exactly match state-issued ones, butoften they're good enough to fool bartenders, nightclub doormenand, sometimes, police officers." In light of the fact thatteenagers are able to so easily forge new identities merely in anattempt to get into a nightclub, imagine what individuals withtruly malevolent intentions would be able to do with national IDcards.

Moreover, bureaucrats could also be bribed or forcibly coercedinto divulging information or producing fake ID cards. Morerealistically, hackers could invade centralized databases anddistort or steal personal information. In any event, human error isa real possibility. As Jonathan S. Shapiro, an assistant professorin the Johns Hopkins University Department of Computer Science,haspointed out, airport security guards and other officials,"think they are relying on the cards when in fact they are relyingon the integrity of the human process by which the cards areissued." In other words, an over-reliance on technology might endup giving us a false sense of security.

The bottom line is that mandatory national ID cards aren't goingto help us catch many bad guys. While the first responsibility ofgovernment is to protect our lives and property, we shouldn't rushinto giving up some of our freedoms unnecessarily. We need thingsthat actually matter, not just symbolic gestures. Instead ofproviding such a meaningful solution, national ID cards willbecome, at a minimum, an unnecessary nuisance for most citizens.Worse yet, in extreme cases, it could produce massive breaches ofindividual privacy.

And at the end of the day, all this goes to show that theoriesabout war and the growth of government are more true than ever.NotesRobert Higgs, author of Crisis and Leviathan: CriticalEpisodes in the Growth of American Government, "As a cause ofthe development of big government in the United States… warseldom receives its due." If federal policymakers begin requiringthat all Americans carry a national ID card, it could constituteone of the most significant increases in government power in ournation's history.