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The Great American ID Game

Why do Americans scorn national ID cards, while corporations already track their personal information?

April 5, 2002

Why do Americans scorn national ID cards, while corporations already track their personal information?

Advocacy groups in the United States — across the entire political spectrum — have united against the idea of a national ID card. They say it is an assault on the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

And though they might not put it in such starkly political terms, the average American citizen shares these groups’ suspicions. Even as the war on terrorism unfolds, they fear that U.S. government will become an Orwellian “Big Brother.”

Yet, the sort of violations of privacy that opponents of such a U.S. national ID card already exist. In fact, Americans are quite happy to accept them. In short, they exist in the voluminous amount of personal and financial information compiled by various providers of financial services.

Want a mortgage, a car loan — or even a simple credit card? Be prepared to disclose massive amounts of information that most people would rather keep private. To obtain such services and lines of credit, many Americans will put up with any amount of poking and probing into their income, address, marital status and so on.

So what does all this have to do with the war on terrorism? Well, U.S. financial services are now ready and willing to put all that information that they have gathered to work — ostensibly to fight terror.

The Atlanta-based Center for Information Policy Leadership is coordinating the efforts to put its member companies’ vast databases to use for homeland defense. Major credit card companies, banks and other financial service firms will be participating in the effort. According to a report in the Associated Press in April 2002, this task force will report to the government in six months.

In many ways, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. When The Globalist wrote in favor of a national ID card in October 2001, we noted that many Western European countries had national ID cards — and that such systems had not deprived those countries’ citizens of their civil liberties.

Back then, we also pointed out to Americans that someone already had all the information on them that they were guarding so jealously. “Relax,” we wrote. “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.”

It seems reasonable to ask why Americans will give away vital personal information for free — when they are consumers — and then try to withhold it as citizens of a nation at war with terrorism.

Indeed, it appears to be the ultimate role reversal. Americans fear their government so much that they would rather that their most personal information be placed in the hands of commercial organizations than their non-profit government.

The news that U.S. services companies are rushing to aid homeland defense — and thus use their databases to set the stage for a national ID card of some sort — thus has to be seen as the mere ratification of an already existing reality.

The United States has a national ID card. It’s called VISA. All of this could also be seen as a sign that where patriotism and government intervention fail in the United States, good old capitalism comes in to save the day.

Yet, could this intersection of commerce and homeland defense be a clarion call of sorts? A true national ID card system that protects Americans from terrorism and also protects their civil liberties is certainly possible. And it should not rely on the private sector — and the lack of privacy that such a step would entail — to ensure that this is accomplished.