All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 2002

The Danger of National Identification

When—If Ever—Will the Enemies of Privacy Draw the Line When It Comes to Violating Our Individual Rights?

It seems innocuous. What could be so sinister about finding out who people are? But the national identification regime that some in government and the media want to establish in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks would likely do much to threaten individual privacy and security while doing little in itself to prevent terrorism.

There are many different ID proposals floating around, but a full-fledged national ID system would impose a mandatory identification card for all citizens and residents of the nation. In The Limits of Privacy, Amitai Etzioni, an enthusiast for this and other forms of round-the-clock surveillance of innocent people, describes national ID cards as “domestic passport-like documents that citizens of many countries, including democracies, are required to have with them at all times.”

Etzioni states that such a card has three characteristics: (1) all citizens and residents “of a given jurisdiction” must have it; (2) all must carry it and present it on request by authorities; (3) each card must be linked to a database with other information about the person. “Note that presenting such identification is required even when there is no specific evidence that a crime has been committed or a regulation violated,” he explains. Most current proposals tout the benefits of linking the cardholder to a national database. The proposals vary only with respect to what kind of information is to be included in the database, which would aggregate and combine data from sundry existing databases.

Many proponents of the proposed “trusted traveler card” for airline passengers would like every possible kind of information about you to be included in the database, everything from your criminal record to how you bought your tickets to your travel record. The more information that is collected, the more robust will be the profile that is constructed. The purpose of the profile would not merely be to flag those with a violent criminal record who are on the run from the law. It also would be to predict how likely a terrorist threat you are based on such factors as how you bought your ticket and whether your name is Arabic or Anglo-Saxon. The implicit premise is that no one can be secure unless everyone is treated as a criminal suspect.

The United States already has experience with schemes of universal or quasi-universal identification. The Social Security number, often in conjunction with the state-issued driver’s license, has become a kind of de facto universal identifier, even though its originally stated purpose was merely to log the so-called contributions of Social Security participants. For many years the Social Security card bore the legend “NOT FOR IDENTIFICATION.” Nevertheless, the Social Security number is used continuously for identification. At the same time, it is not that hard to obtain somebody else’s number if you have a little basic information about that person. Ironically, this government-imposed vulnerability of the individual is often cited by proponents of national ID as a premier reason why the privacy of Americans must be violated even more aggressively now.

The government would probably not succeed in ordering all Americans to apply for mandatory national ID cards. The outcry would be too great. But the government might accomplish the task gradually by establishing precedents that make it a little harder for people to function if they lack new quasi-mandatory forms of ID. Once the public had grown accustomed to living with a particular new violation of their privacy and freedom of movement, the stage would then be set for winching the noose even tighter.

Ten years ago nobody could have imagined that to fly from Manhattan to Albany it would be necessary to present a government-issued ID card. Once that coercive violation of air-passenger privacy had become routine, however, it was a small matter in the post-9/11 world to require passengers to present ID up to three separate times before being allowed to board a plane. Even without the active support of the public–no longer quite so willing to trade away liberties as they were in the immediate wake of September 11–a full-fledged national identification regime could be achieved by a series of small and not-so-small accumulating precedents.

The Next Step

Two new quasi-mandatory forms of ID now in the works could set the stage for such a regime.

The “trusted-traveler” card would be an ID passengers could obtain to (presumably) make it easier to get through airport security checks. To get the card, you’d need to submit to a background investigation. The card would be linked to a database of financial and other information about you so that you could be flagged as a security risk if, say, you have a criminal record, or buy your ticket in cash, or have a flying routine that is a little bit different from an alleged norm. If the card is successfully swiped without any alarm bells going off, you would presumably be able to board without being searched minutely.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is now authorized by Congress to look into developing such a card. At present, the aim is to prepare such a database-linked card for anybody who might work in the travel industry. Then the card would be extended to passengers on a purely voluntary basis.

Of course, once all the kinks have been worked out and many (or not so many) passengers have signed up for the card voluntarily, officials might then “realize” that there isn’t much point to the trusted-traveler card unless absolutely everybody has one. It would be observed that would-be terrorists with something a little odd in their background would probably not rush to get the card; also that terrorists with a squeaky-clean record to date might especially want the card as a means of deflecting attention from themselves, if indeed possession of the trusted-traveler card would enable one to evade the highest levels of scrutiny. Citing these vitiating factors, policymakers could then push to make the card mandatory for all air passengers. And once that level of surveillance were typical, the next step would be to require all inhabitants of the country to carry such a card–not merely those currently traveling.

Another route to a national ID would be to beef up the state-issued driver’s licenses. The federal government may require that all state driver’s licenses be uniform in appearance, include biometric information like digitalized fingerprints, and be linked to a single national database. This, too, is a live proposal.

If both the trusted-traveler card and the amalgamated driver’s licenses are instituted, the government could eventually merge them into a universally mandatory identification card–a national ID. Alternatively, either one could evolve into a national ID by itself. Because much more of the infrastructure to support a revamped state driver’s license is already in place, streamlining it is the most probable route to a national ID.

The Danger

A national identification card would turn all Americans and residents of the United States into criminal suspects. It would also provide the means for many people to gain instant and regular access to information about the private affairs of cardholders.

Under the proposed national ID regime, even one’s bank transactions could end up being routinely added to a national database to which anybody with authority to request your card could have access. All it would take is (1) computer memory and computing power; and (2) the political ability to add that information to the database. The rationale would be that the more information the government has about a person, the more accurate will be the profile its analytical software can build of that person. Computers are only going to grow more powerful, so what happens next will depend on what those in power are willing and able to do–which in turn depends on what the public is willing to let them get away with.

Nobody is as motivated to preserve and protect your own personal security as you are. But under a national identification regime, your ability to do so would be largely impaired. You’d be a perennial criminal suspect. And you’d always have to worry about when and whether some criminal or clerk will turn your life into a living hell.

The more information that is collected about you, and the more frequently you must provide access to such information to people who may not be scrupulous with it, the greater your personal risk. Today in the United States it is still possible to operate without a credit card and even without a driver’s license. But a mandatory, presentable-on-demand national ID card would make it virtually impossible to function without providing such access to personal information. Under a full-fledged national ID, there would be a single key to your personal kingdom, even more so than is true today. If you lost that key, or if somebody corrupted it or stole it, you’d be in trouble. Privacy advocate Robert Ellis Smith has characterized the national ID card as “a license to live.”

On top of all that, databases are not infallible. Nor are the guardians.

It’s not as if, under a national identification regime, only the president or a cabinet member would be able to demand your national ID card to gain access to what the national database has to say about you. IRS agents have been caught rifling through presumably confidential tax records when they weren’t supposed to, without suffering any great penalty. In the new identification regime, any rogue cop, any criminal with the money to bribe a clerk, any clerk who wants to exact revenge against an old girlfriend, anybody at all who can ask for your card and misinterpret what he sees on the screen–in other words, a lot of people–would be newly empowered to cause trouble.

Proponents of a national ID might reply that even granting that such an identification regime would be claustrophobic to Americans used to moving about freely, it might nonetheless also help prevent crime and terrorism. Sophisticated attackers might evade the net long enough to commit their planned violence, but not all terrorists are so sophisticated. Some will be sloppy, and the government’s ability to pry more easily into the affairs of all persons will give investigators a better chance to detect telltale clues inadvertently provided by a bad guy.

But information as such is insufficient to prevent a crime in any case. It has been widely reported that evidence of an al Qaeda terrorist plot against the United States was available to government agencies before September 11. Enough pieces of the puzzle were in the hands of officials to warrant a vigorous investigation. But for whatever reasons of political culture or organizational dysfunction, the puzzle was not solved. Had it been, much more conclusive assessments about fruitful lines of investigation would likely have been reached than could be reached merely by random trawling of massive databases generated by wholesale surveillance of the entire population. The data kingdom created by a national identification regime would spawn an abundance of false leads–”profile matches”–that could only drain and distract law enforcement, while resulting in unnecessary and unjust harassment of persons who happen to match one element or another of the profile.

Almost any systematic restriction of individual liberty might prevent a criminal act. Almost any ordinary, peaceful human action can also be a step in the perpetration of a criminal act. But if the mere possibility of such prevention constituted a moral warrant for violating American rights and freedoms, there could be no practical curb to such violations. And the capacity of innocent persons to defend themselves would also be hampered.

For the sake of preventing terrorism, would there be any point, for instance, to throwing everybody in the country in jail simultaneously? Granted, everybody’s rights would be massively violated, the economy would grind to a halt, and the country would be rendered susceptible to foreign attack. But at least no existing domestic criminals or terrorists who had made their way into the country would be able to rob a bank or detonate a bomb in a shopping center. In such an extreme application of the principle, it is obvious that individual security is jeopardized far more than it is “protected” by any such systematic lockdown. But it would also be jeopardized by other, less severe, but still universal restrictions of human freedom of the sort that are congenial to the development of a totalitarian state–and without even the certainty that determined violent assaults on society could be thereby prevented. Israel has a kind of national ID card (not yet a “smart card” with a magnetic stripe; they’re looking into it). Yet there seem to be many methods available of slaughtering innocent people if the perpetrator is willing to die–or be later identified.

Fighting Terrorism Without Assaulting Individual Rights

Any systematic, arbitrary violation of individual rights might prevent some criminal from carrying out some criminal act, at least temporarily. The problem is that each such violation also makes it all that much harder for the rest of us to live our lives and to defend ourselves against criminal acts.

There are many ways to combat terrorism. For example, by targeting known terrorists–and their networks and their governmental sponsors–and by investigating legitimate suspects. People will debate, as they should, exactly what methods of doing so are best and most moral.

But policymakers should and must at least draw the line at targeting and investigating . . . everybody.

David Brown is the publisher of The Crunch Report (, a webzine. He helped develop the I Am Not a Number Campaign for the Bureaucrash website.