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An ID Card for All Americans?

What is the best way to protect the United States and preserve U.S. civil liberties?

October 10, 2001

What is the best way to protect the United States and preserve U.S. civil liberties?

Americans instinctively distrust government, which they view as Big Brother. The idea of introducing a federally issued identity card that all legal residents would be required to carry has surfaced many times during previous crises. Unlike driver’s licenses — of which there are 242 different types in 50 U.S. states — such an ID would be difficult to obtain fraudulently or to counterfeit. It would allow the government to keep better track of America’s diverse and highly mobile population.

However, once the immediate crisis is past, Americans typically forget about the idea — or worse, actively turn against it. Proposals to set up a national ID program were introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1997 and again in 2000, but were defeated by libertarians on both sides of the aisle.

In normal times, a national ID card is seen by Americans as a serious infringement by the government on the privacy of its citizens and the first step toward keeping files on all Americans.

Of course, Americans are justly afraid of a national ID system like the one that has existed in Russia for nearly a century.

The Soviet government issued every citizen a domestic passport which — along with name and date of birth — contained a wealth of information, such as nationality, occupation, place of residence, marital status and children.

Soviet model Although Russia is now a democracy, the format of the domestic passport has hardly changed. Citizens are still required to carry it at all times and to present it on demand to any curious government official or security guard.
But between these two extremes — an intrusive ID and no ID at all — there is a lot of room. Fitting in there comfortably is the Western European system. In virtually every European country, residents are required to carry a national ID card, but this has certainly not deprived them of their civil liberties or right to privacy.

In fact, the opposite is the case: Laws protecting citizens’ privacy are much stricter in many European countries than in the United States.

The evidence, therefore, seems to support that national ID systems can yield significant gains in privacy protection. Once government starts collecting all the information it needs to make such a system work, citizens and their elected representatives tend to take action to assure that strong privacy protection safeguards are in place.

These safeguards include the appointment of “Privacy Czars,” who have the power to enforce privacy laws and can penalize offenders. And since it does not make sense to limit these provisions just to the public sector, the same strict rules are applied to private businesses as well. The end result is a net gain in privacy protection.

What does this imply for the U.S. situation? The reverse logic of this compelling argument is as follows: Because the U.S. government has been unable so far to implement a national ID system, there are few rules to prevent the private sector ( such as credit card and other marketing companies) from abusing the existing lax standards. Despite the claims of many civil libertarians, U.S. citizens lose out under the current system.

Of course, one can point to the fact that a national ID did not prevent an outbreak of terrorism in Italy and Germany in the 1970s. And terrorists are still active in many parts of Europe, notably the United Kingdom and Spain. But national IDs surely make it a lot easier for governments to fight terrorism — both homegrown and imported.

And yet, compared to the United States, Western Europe is still a very homogenous place. Non-European immigrants and their children make up a relatively small proportion of the population, especially outside major cities.

And Europeans are far less mobile than Americans, who typically leave home to attend college — and then forever move around in pursuit of jobs, housing and better places to raise children.

So far, the primary U.S. policy response to the events of September 11 has been to trace the movement of immigrants. At the same time, President Bush and top government officials have warned against harassing Muslims and Americans of Arab descent.

Nonetheless, immigration lawyers in the United States are now advising their clients to carry valid visas and immigration papers at all times.

To wit, it is not as if the United States is completely immune to using ID cards. In fact, as of October 1, Mexicans legally crossing the border into the United States were obliged to present their U.S. government issued ID cards. Some 2 million, or 40% of all permit holders, failed to exchange their old permits for new IDs and hundreds were turned away at the border when new regulations came into effect on October 1.

And as far as Americans themselves are concerned, their wanderlust has already been curtailed by strict security measures at airports. Although some people are genuinely apprehensive about flying, many more simply do not want to go through two hours of search and scrutiny. While we agree that security needs to be tightened, a uniform national ID would surely make security checks both shorter and more effective.

A national ID card, far from infringing on America’s much vaunted civil liberties, would on the contrary help preserve the cherished aspects of American society, such as its relatively easy immigration, its multi-ethnic, multi-faith makeup — and its remarkable mobility.

In the bargain, a national ID card could also solve a number of problems plaguing American society — from deadbeat dads to social security fraud. Not to mention voting fraud and massive confusion with voter registration, which made the 2000 U.S. presidential election the laughingstock of the world.

But none of these practical arguments really address what many Americans consider the core issue: what about Big Brother watching over the shoulder of every freedom-loving American? It may come as a surprise to those same Americans, but their daily existence is already one of the most transparent in the world.

There are numerous entities in the United States keeping a detailed tap on how much each American earns, how often and where he travels, what kind of restaurants he prefers, what prescription medication he takes.

Relax. It is not the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency or some other sinister spook organization lurking in the bowels of Washington. It is the presumably innocuous credit card industry and market research firms, with their vast databases systematically collecting every scrap of information.

Quite voluntarily, a majority of Americans have surrendered their right to privacy for the convenience of buying today — and paying later. Wouldn’t it be a small price to pay to combat domestic terrorism if a far less intrusive system were introduced to keep track of America’s population?

And here’s a fine thought worth contemplating. If Americans distrust big government — and, in contrast, trust credit companies — perhaps the latter should be put in charge of issuing national ID cards. As things stand, they wouldn’t even have to collect more information. At present, the average American is just about as see-through a human being as George Orwell so ominously foresaw in his novel “1984.”

And, as a further part of that job rotation, perhaps the federal government should be put in charge of maintaining the data on U.S. credit card holders in the future. If the Feds were to get that job, hopes are that Americans could — ironically — count on more privacy than the private sector currently accords them.