All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1998

A Number, Not a Name: Big Brother by Stealth

How Government Databases Are Destroying Our Privacy and Our Freedom

Claire Wolfe is a writer in Tacoma, Washington. © Claire Wolfe, 1998.

When Representative Dan Schaefer of Colorado held a consumer protection seminar in October 1997, he thought he was going to educate constituents about guarding their privacy against con artists. Instead, it was Schaefer who got an education.

“My concern with privacy,” snapped the first person to rise for a question-and-answer session, “is what the damn government is doing to me.”

A flood of comment followed—nearly all of it about laws passed by Schaefer’s own 104th Congress, controlled by Republicans, and signed by President Clinton, a Democrat. Together, considering the information and technology at the government’s disposal, these laws create the most comprehensive identification and citizen-tracking system ever imposed on any country. Yet they have received little attention in the mainstream media and in some cases were passed with little or no debate in Congress.

In the Beginning Was the ID Card

Since 1996 the United States has had a mandate for a de facto national ID card. It takes effect October 1, 2000. Public Law 104-208 (Division C, Title VI, Subtitle D, Section 656) says that for identification, federal agencies may only accept state drivers’ licenses or other documents that display or are linked to Social Security numbers and that have security features supposedly to discourage tampering or counterfeiting. Any time you wish to receive a service from the federal government, you will be required to produce this license or a similar nondriver ID. No alternates will be accepted.

It is important to note that PL 104-208 contains 468,937 words—about four times the size of an average novel. The national ID provision occupies approximately one page. How many people knew it was even there?

Insecurity Features

Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater has not published his proposed regulation on security features. (The law required him to do so by September 30, 1997.) However, we already know that these features will not consist of innocuous items like those in the recently redesigned currency. They will contain, among other things, your biometric identifiers.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), the group assisting Slater with design of the card, has already made this apparent via state laws being passed at their behest. Some 28 states have begun, or are proposing, to change their drivers’ licenses since the federal law was passed. Changes and proposals include digitally encoded fingerprints; digital, computer-readable photo; digitally encoded retinal scan; and other forms of biometric ID.

These, or similar features, will be on your license in the form of bar codes, magnetic strips, and, eventually, silicon chips (smart cards). In December 1997 the AAMVA announced that fingerprints were its currently favored form of biometric ID.

Only the Beginning

Bar codes and magnetic strips enable the driver’s license to carry a significant amount of data about your life. The card becomes a mini-databank containing such electronically readable information as your driving record, employment, age, sex, race, Social Security number, and criminal record. The most sophisticated cards will have the capability to contain far greater amounts of data, which might include your health history, education records, job history, DNA scans, and virtually anything else the government decides to legislate into the license, or a bureaucrat decides to regulate into it.

Those data will be available to anyone with the capability of scanning your card. Yet the card itself is not the biggest problem. The far larger problem lies in the databases a Social Security number-based ID can unlock. By making the card a carrier of a “unique identifier” for every citizen, the federal government has created a nightmare. And the nightmare is made flesh by other provisions passed by the 104th Congress.

Buried in both Public Law 104-208 and Public Law 104-193 (the Welfare Reform Act of 1996) are similar provisions requiring development of scannable Social Security cards. If this doesn’t seem ominous in its own right, it becomes so when connected with another hidden element of PL 104-208. The law orders pilot programs in which job-seekers will be required to obtain the permission of the federal government before being allowed to work (Division C, Title IV, Subtitle A, Sections 401-404). The machine-readable Social Security card will be used to transmit the potential employee’s ID to Washington and to receive an okay from the Social Security Administration.

Moreover, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-191), much ballyhooed in the media as “moderate” health-care reform, dictates national “standards” for the electronic transmission of all personal medical data. Standards seems an innocuous term. However, the law specifies that every individual’s medical data will be stored and transmitted under a “unique identifier.” These standards were ordered in the name of preventing abuses of medical data. However, by placing every American’s records into one form, with one identifying number for each individual, Congress made abuse not only easier, but inevitable. In fact, the law carries built-in blueprints for abuse. For example, you have no right to forbid your private information to be transmitted as the government orders. You have no right to inspect your own transmitted data or correct it. The law does, however, guarantee access to a variety of government agencies and “researchers.” Although, once again, the proposed standards have not been published, it’s a virtual certainty that your Social Security number will be used as your “unique identifier” in this system.

In other words, your Social Security number—which had been gradually turning into an unofficial universal ID number for decades—becomes the key to a vast new store of personal information about your life.

But, still, these invasions of privacy aren’t the most serious problem.

The Biggest Invasion of All

As the Welfare Reform Act was on its way to becoming law, left-liberals, conservatives, and the media alike hailed one of its provisions—the “Deadbeat Dads’ Database.” Nearly everyone agreed that tracking down deadbeat, absentee parents was a good idea. Except . . . that’s not what the database does.

If you were designing a system to track nonpaying, noncustodial parents (leaving aside the constitutional issue of whether the federal government has authority to do any such thing), how would you do it? The least obtrusive way, of course, would be to wait until an absentee parent had missed at least one child-support payment, then enter information about the parent in the database. But by then the absentee might have disappeared.

The next logical course, somewhat more obtrusive to responsible parents, but more effective, would be for court clerks to enter every child-support judgment into a local database at the time it is issued. The parent who owes child support could then be required either to make payments through the court or to report periodically to the court. If the parent failed to do so, police could be quickly issued an order to contact the noncomplying parent. When the children had matured and the obligation ended, the parent’s name would be removed from the record.

The database Congress created has no connection whatsoever with child-support judgments. It has nothing to do with parenthood in any manner. It is, quite simply, a permanent record of every person hired by any company in America, anywhere, at any time—filed by Social Security number. The “new hires database,” as it is more properly called, tidily lets many a self-employed “deadbeat” slip through the cracks. Yet at the same time it sweeps in the single and childless, devoted married couples, great-grandparents, and every other category of productive worker. Clearly, the purpose of this database never was, isn’t, and never will be to track “deadbeat dads.” It is to track citizens, particularly working citizens—those whom the federal government increasingly regards as its “resources.”

Furthermore, Section 317 of the Welfare Reform Act requires that, as a condition of receiving federal welfare funds, states must “establish procedures requiring that the Social Security number of any applicant for a professional license, commercial driver’s license, recreational license, occupational license, or marriage license be recorded on the application.” A year later, the word commercial was removed, applying the regulation to the nation’s 180 million drivers.

Once the states pass their enabling legislation, no American will even be able to get a fishing license, get married, or become a hairdresser without the information being immediately available to government agencies across the land.

Taken together, these databases, ID cards, and programs will become a citizen-monitoring system that would have been the envy of the old Soviet Empire or Nazi Germany. Yet there is more already on the books. And there is certainly more to come.

Other Sections of the Maze

The School to Work Opportunities Act of 1994, passed by the Democratic Congress in Clinton’s first two years, has many cheerleaders in the education community and was promoted to the public as a solution to the long-standing problem of children’s leaving school unprepared for work. In reality, however, the act requires local schools to supply data to the secretaries of labor and education for the School to Work program’s “labor-market identification system.” Although it is benignly worded, this all sounds ominous, as though students are national resources and the federal government is needed to oversee the work force for the benefit of industry.

Furthermore, as British scholar Sean Gabb noted in his well-researched 1994 essay on the national ID issues: “In the United States . . . the education system is fast acquiring a national network of electronic student records. Its purpose is to allow the exchange of information between various agencies, both public and private, and the continuous tracking of individuals through school and higher education, through the armed forces, through the criminal justice system, through their civilian careers, and through their use of the medical services.”[1]

Right now the databases contain an “electronic portfolio” of students’ work, teacher assessments, and Social Security numbers. But Gabb notes that the National Education Goals Panel (NEGP), set up under Goals 2000, has recommended that other information be included, such as health information, poverty status, after-school activities, employment, and voter-registration status. The panel also identifies other “data elements useful for research and school management purposes,” including how many people live in a student’s home, the relationship of those people, and the education level of “primary care-givers.”

Gabb writes that the records are available to private agencies. “In Together We Can, a book published jointly by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there is talk of ‘overcoming the confidentiality barrier,’” he writes. “The purpose of the new databases is to give all agencies ‘ready access to each other’s data.’”

With this in mind, it should be noted that recent changes in tax law also require that every child have a Social Security number in order to be claimed as a deduction on a parent’s tax return. As of this year, there are no alternative means of “proving” the existence of your child. Whether the specific recommendations of the NEGP are implemented or some other, equally intrusive proposal one day becomes law, what do you think will be used as a “unique identifier” in childhood databases?

Speaking of those growing databases: in mid-1997 President Clinton proposed creation of a federal registry of all children’s vaccinations, stating that “most people” can’t track their children’s medical records, even when it may have “something to do with whether their children live or die.” Not a single parent, teacher, or physician’s group spoke out in protest of this stunning assumption about the stupidity and carelessness of the average American parent.

Finally, bills under consideration by Congress are ominous. HR 231 would make the Social Security card every American’s photo ID. Second, according to Scott McDonald of Alabama’s Fight the Fingerprint, the Voter Eligibility Verification Act, HR 1428, would permit states to require people to provide Social Security numbers when they register to vote. Furthermore, the bill would establish a “Voter Eligibility Confirmation System” to be maintained by the attorney general’s office in cooperation with the Social Security Administration. Third, again according to McDonald, HR 1998, the Yates Firearm Registration and Crime Prevention Act would require everyone who owns a firearm to register it with the federal government within one year after the effective date of the act. To register, you must submit your “name, age, address, and Social Security number, name of the manufacturer, the caliber or gauge (as appropriate), the model and type, and the serial number identification (if any) of the firearm.” The application for a firearm permit must be “on a written application that contains a photograph and fingerprints of the applicant.” (This bill appears to be languishing.)

All the laws discussed have been passed or proposed in the name of “safety,” “security,” “anti-fraud,” “crime control,” or “stopping illegal immigrants.” The federal government cannot force the states to adopt ID and tracking systems. It has done something even more powerful—threatened to withhold tax dollars from those that don’t comply and rewarded those that do with bonus millions. Every state in the nation is adopting the new-hires database and Social Security number requirements for licensing. Every state will be forced by sheer necessity to adopt the national ID license.

But Why Worry?

Some may say, “Well, good. It’s about time they found some way to stop illegal aliens, deadbeats, and criminals.” Others will react, “Gee, I’d like to have my health record on my driver’s license in case I’m in an accident or something.” Or, “Criminals ought to have their records where police can easily get them.” And then there is the standard: “Why should I worry about the government having information about me? I don’t have anything to hide.”

But those responses, all of which imply face-value acceptance of the federal government’s claims of “security,” ignore the long-term harm that will inevitably come from a national ID and database system.

You should worry because all these laws work together for one purpose, and that purpose is to control your life. Every one of these measures implies government ownership of the information about your life—and by projection, of your life itself. They imply that we are subjects, not citizens. Serfs, not free people. Cattle, not independent and equal humans.

By assuming it has the unlimited right to collect and maintain data on us, to require us to use numbering systems and ID systems of its design, and to track its “human resources” as it sees fit, the federal government is treating us precisely as a modern farmer treats his herds. Certainly, he wants them to be healthy, to be grazing in the right pasture at the right moment, to be secure against predators . . . but he wants them most emphatically to be under his constant watch and control.

You should worry because innocent errors or deliberate corruption could cost you everything you’ve ever worked for. For instance, once the pilot job ID program becomes national policy, if your Social Security card fails to scan, you may not be able to get a job anywhere in the United States. A card could fail to scan for many innocent reasons. Or, if you are a political activist, a rival of a government contractor, or some other form of “undesirable,” your card could fail to scan because someone hacked the system or tagged your Social Security file. It could take months, even years, to straighten out innocent errors.

An error in your health records could indicate that you were mentally ill. In that case, you might lose your gun rights or your job. A political opponent could use your nonexistent “illness” against you in a variety of ways. How many more horrors can result from incorrect or “fiddled” data?

You should worry because accurate data can harm you, too. As Sean Gabb has pointed out, even accurate data can easily be used against you. In Britain there have already been incidents in which smokers were denied health care. Gabb cites one case in which the child of a smoker was denied dental care until his parent ceased using cigarettes. The information on the parents’ habits was in a national database.

The potential for discrimination by government against people on the basis of their habits, sexual orientation, health history, or other factors is enormous. While a national ID card might never result in mass slaughter, as in Nazi Germany, it could result in such things as quotas that would deny medical care to elderly or overweight people.

You should worry because your alleged representatives feel themselves bound by no restraints at all—neither by the Constitution nor your opinion. The Constitution gives the federal government no authority to pass any of this legislation. But Congress discarded the Constitution long ago. And it is passing sweeping laws in such a way as to keep them largely invisible to you until it is too late.

And if these things don’t worry you . . . Here’s one small practical reason to oppose these federal efforts at control. They’ll do nothing whatsoever to make anyone more secure. On the contrary, as quickly as the new driver’s license systems are being put online, they are being compromised. In two states, thieves rapidly broke in and stole the computer systems that produce the “secure” ID. In California, Department of Motor Vehicle employees were arrested for selling black-market “secure” ID cards.

Every database can be hacked. Employees can be bribed. The most sophisticated card can be faked. By establishing systems that some people will have to evade merely to survive, and by driving ordinary privacy lovers to desperation, these laws actually create more lawbreaking and entirely new classes of criminals.

Opposition Grows

Across the nation, citizens are mobilizing to fight their state’s rendition of the national ID card. Three of the earliest and most active groups are in Georgia, Alabama, and Washington.[2] However, their efforts will lead to a dead end. If a state refuses to comply with federal ID requirements, its citizens will not be able to get passports, welfare, or Social Security, among other services.

This might bring a momentary smile to libertarians (like me) who would like to see such federal services abolished. Unfortunately, it would also leave most citizens of the rebellious states crying for ID chains and the tax-funded “security” that comes with them.

Even among activists carrying on the battle “within the system,” there is another, deeper element to the struggle. Unnoted by the media, a solid resistance movement is forming under and around the polite activism. As states introduce their enabling legislation for the new ID, and as activists gradually lose the battle, we can expect to see literally millions of Americans take steps to drop out, circumvent, or monkey-wrench the numbering and database systems.

Many fundamentalist Christians believe they will literally lose their souls if they accept a universal ID number, seeing it as a sign of the Antichrist. (Revelation 13:16-17: “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”) Many nonreligious activists and freedom-seekers have simply declared this to be their line in the sand. As one commented, “Slaves to one side; free people to the other. I know which side I’m on, no matter what damn laws they pass.”

  1. “A Libertarian Conservative Case Against Identity Cards,” by Sean Gabb. First published by the Libertarian Alliance, London, 1994, as Political Notes 98. Available on the Internet at
  2. The Alabama Fight the Fingerprint organization maintains the best all-round web site on this subject at If you visit, be sure to check their recently updated record on all state driver’s license requirements at Other sites of interest: the Georgia Coalition to Repeal the Fingerprints Law and Washington State Citizens Against National ID at