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The Great American ID Debate

A new new idea is gaining steam in the United States: national ID cards. Many Americans, though, are concerned about the government invading their privacy.

April 18, 2002

A new new idea is gaining steam in the United States: national ID cards. Many Americans, though, are concerned about the government invading their privacy.

Foreigners living in the United States — and foreign students in particular — may soon be required to carry national identification cards.

Given that several of the terrorists who carried out the September attacks entered the United States as foreign students, this proposal seems justified — on the surface. Certainly, the absence of international student lobbying groups makes students an easy group to target.

Proponents of this approach to national identification contend that it would keep out any new Mohammed Attas. But one must ask the question: Just how much would U.S. security actually be improved?

In the final analysis, an ID system confined to foreigners — or foreign students — would only provide a false sense of security.

There is, after all, nothing to stop a foreign student from leaving the ID card in his or her desk drawer — and using a state-issued driver’s license or other type of state or school ID instead. It is easy to legally obtain a driver’s license or a state or college ID card. None of these forms of ID indicate nationality or legal status.

And who would know the difference? Surely, a police officer stopping such an individual would not know. The driver’s license is still the most commonly-used form of identification in the United States. Second-guessing someone’s nationality based on looks or accent would amount to the much decried “racial profiling.”

The fact is that the current lax policy about national IDs in the United States precludes effective monitoring of any broad-based group, including international students. Americans have consciously kept efforts at introducing national ID cards at bay.

In fact, this sentiment was summed up quite nicely in a recent New York Times magazine article about Silicon Valley and U.S. national security. Oracle’s founder and CEO, Larry Ellison, told the Times that the digital identification cards he would like to develop for the U.S. government would be “optional for citizens, but mandatory for aliens.”

As it stands, the instinctive American suspicion about entrusting government agencies with personal data appears to have won out. Already, a wide coalition of civil rights groups, spanning the political spectrum, opposes such an ID card — or any other measures that could be seen as a step in this direction.

What European nations learned from their own battles against terrorism — which began in the 1970s — is that ID cards are useful in tracking certain kinds of movements.

Yet, such cards are useful only if everyone — citizens and residents from outside the country — are subject to the ID system. One can choose not to weigh down U.S. citizens, and resident aliens, with an ID card — or to require them of everyone.

The U.S. Congress should accept this logic — and refrain from the temptation of appeasing public opinion with ineffective legislative reforms.

The currently emerging consensus is as ineffectual as it is delirious. One wonders what’s next? Dog tags for foreigners? Or electronic monitoring bracelets to track the movements of international students? In the end, such efforts — however high-tech — are ultimately doomed to failure. Worse, they will only get in the way of dealing with the real threats posed by the war on terrorism.