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National ID Cards

In March of 2004, amidst the ongoing national obsession with keeping terrorists from airplanes and, more generally, from sneaking into our country, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote a column advocating creation of a national ID card as a means of rationalizing the disparate and chaotic mechanisms we currently use to establish identity. No doubt a properly designed national ID card would serve that purpose. But I found his casual dismissal of any possible objections alarming. And in the column he asked rhetorically why it was that conservatives who would “imprison people indefinitelyand favored “sending people off to die in Iraq in the name of security” — in other words, people who were so utterly cavalier about civil liberties and the value of human life — would object so strenuously to a national ID card. I found that question, and the attitude it implies, both offensive and ignorant. This was my answer.

17 March 2004

In today’s column you question why conservatives would object to a national ID card. Part of the answer of course is that there are many different types of ‘conservatives’, just as there are many different types of ‘liberals’, and not all of them would object. In general, it is the more libertarian-minded ‘conservatives’ (and ‘liberals’) who object to things like national ID cards; as a rule, those are not the same people who want to “imprison people indefinitely“.   And the ‘conservative’ rationale for “sending people off to die in Iraq in the name of security” is precisely that we are (alas) in a state of war — albeit a damned peculiar and hard to fathom war — a state in which there is some grave danger to the nation and in which, therefore, the normal functions of civil society and normal standards of civilized behavior are temporarily suspended. We differentiate “wartime” and a “war zone” from other circumstances precisely to recognize how at odds they are with our normal existence, how extreme our actions in those times and places must be, and how important it is to restrict those actions to times and places where they are truly necessary.

Certainly the “war zone” is, to some small extent, here: the “war” on terrorism became hot because the terrorists took it to our homeland. And, because the homeland is to some small extent the war zone, we may need temporarily to suspend some aspects of civil society and standards of civilized behavior here. The problem with national ID cards is not the ID cards themselves, or their utility in potentially constraining terrorists. The problem is in the world of possibilities they open up for abuse.

We can get some sense for that from the examples you cite of our current systems: drivers’ licenses and Social Security cards. Most people no longer remember that the Social Security Number (and the Social Security card) were once legally restricted to use only for accounting wages and distributions within the Social Security system. Now its use is ubiquitous: all your financial dealings are tied to it, it is required to open bank accounts and get credit, and it is literally impossible to get away without having one because it is now illegal for any employer to hire anyone who can’t prove they have one. So it has gone from a highly restricted accounting mechanism for a small social insurance program to an all-inclusive financial tracking identifier and a means of regulating your ability to work.

Similarly, drivers’ licenses originally had a limited purpose: they told a policeman stopping you for a traffic infraction that you were entitled to drive a car on the public ways. But once they existed and became ubiquitous — because cars became ubiquitous — they accumulated endless secondary functions for proving your identity and age in all kinds of situations — until now, again, it becomes almost impossible to exist without one.

But at least the Social Security card itself, lacking a picture or other identifying information, is rarely used (even if the number is used for everything); and the various state licenses — and the records that accompany them — are spread across many jurisdictions. Further, there is not yet a direct legal link between the Social Security number and the license, so the two realms — financial identity and personal identity — cannot necessarily be easily integrated for tracking purposes.

But with a national ID card that limitation disappears. There is only a single jurisdiction, and a great (I would say irresistible) incentive to integrate the social security system with the ID card from the outset, such that your financial and personal identity records can be maintained and tracked with great efficiency. And of course, once there is a national ID card, it would only make sense to integrate that with the latest proposals from the health-care world, to make it a National ID/Social Security/Health Care ID card — an all-encompassing identifier to which all your personal, financial, and health information can be tied and tracked. It never ceases to amaze me the overlap between the people who are outraged that Bank of America or Equifax can use computer technology to associate certain kinds of consumer and financial behavior with individuals and use that to market products, and the people who think it would be just fine for the government to be able to do infinitely more. No government large enough to do that efficiently will ever be sufficiently accountable to be completely trusted with it.

Further, once we have such a thing — based on a need temporarily to suspend some aspects of civil society for the war on terrorism — we will never get rid of it. This will not be a temporary wartime measure. It will be far too useful for the political classes to relinquish it when the war has passed. What seems necessary now, in the heat of war, may not seem so necessary — and may seem damned scary — once the war is over and we try to reclaim the civil norms.

But the biggest downside to a national ID card is that, once it was in place, and in order to make the best use of it for fighting terrorism, it would be irresistible that it be transformed from something that is only practically mandatory (like the drivers license and the Social Security card — in theory you could arrange your life to live without them) into something that is legally mandatory, not merely if you want to board a plane or to handle dynamite but simply because you exist. And then, once governments and government agencies across the spectrum know that everyone must have one, it is only practical that they demand you present it for every interaction with government — for your own protection of course, just to ensure we know who we’re dealing with. And how about when you are acting suspiciously in the street? In fact, why don’t we just make it mandatory that you carry it with you at all times, and show it on demand to any government official?

All that seems extreme, but the process of getting there needs only a handful of reasonable incremental steps, starting with the National ID card. Would it inevitably lead there? No. But it makes it easier to go there and should, therefore, not be accepted cavalierly as if it were nothing.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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