National ID Card Threatens Privacy

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2406, 2006-02-10, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18 and 20) and their website.

"You there! Show me proof of your identity!" barks a heavily-armed government goon, as he points menacingly at a group of cowering citizens, as they step out of a movie theater, minding their own business.

This sort of degrading encounter is often seen in movies that portray civilian life during World War II, throughout Nazi-controlled Europe, where innocent people were forced to carry documentation of their names, home addresses, and races. These infamous identity papers were used by German government officials to limit freedom of movement between cities and, for people of certain races and other "undesirables", even between neighborhoods.

In modern America, as we sit in the comfort of a movie theater or the privacy of our own home, we may consider such dangers to be safely limited to 1940s Nazi Germany and the countries it invaded, or to the imaginations of Hollywood screenwriters and directors. We might assume that such totalitarian control and monitoring of innocent civilians has absolutely no chance of taking place in the "land of the free".

But if current trends are projected forward, and United States federal and state governments continue to push for increasing standardization of identity cards, as well as the sharing of information among agencies, then it is most likely that similar disturbing scenarios could take place in the future, in the United States, Great Britain, or in any other so-called democratic country in the world.

Our Police (State) Records

Centuries ago, the citizens of the English colonies — including the American ones — would readily identify themselves to one another by their names, hometowns, and professions. These people were typically willing to do so, as they were often proud of their lineage, family honor, hometowns, and chosen field of commerce. Yet at the same time, they were mindful of keeping critical information to themselves, and they understood and respected the privacy of others.

What would they think of modern America?! The average U.S. citizen has been numbered and cataloged by numerous government agencies, all of which unhesitatingly share that information among themselves and sometimes to the highest commercial bidder. The same is true of countless businesses, which make every attempt to extract our personal information, and then turn around and sell it to others, without verifying its intended use.

Given this out-of-control dissemination of our confidential data, as well as the endless cases of hackers breaking into databases, it is no wonder that identity theft is skyrocketing in number and cost (financial and emotional), to the extent that some analysts predict that it will be the "number one crime of the 21st century".

Our elected and appointed government officials, supposedly using our hard-earned tax dollars to serve the public interest, should be making every effort to minimize their demands for this information, and to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands. Yet these bureaucrats, in the United States and Great Britain and elsewhere, are continually pushing in the opposite direction.

Our (Un-)American Card

The overhaul of the U.S. federal intelligence system that began in December of 2004, was partly designed to make it more difficult for terrorists to obtain the identity cards needed to board commercial aircraft. In particular, the new intelligence legislation would mandate that state driving licenses would have to conform to federal standards in such areas as information shown, machine readability, and authentication methods.

Privacy advocates warned that such standardized licenses would effectively function as national ID cards, thereby making it possible for government bodies to more easily track the whereabouts of innocent citizens. What is particularly worrisome is that many of the law's specifics are yet undetermined, and could include the use of biometric information, such as retinal scans and fingerprints, as well as RFID chips, which would transmit the location of the license and thus its owner when carried.

Government officials counter that they are simply making the driver's licenses already in use, more secure. They argue that states can choose to opt out of the plan, merely by not modifying their driver's licenses to conform to the new federal standards.

But what are the odds of any state doing that? Such nonconforming licenses would be unusable for any federal purposes, such as boarding airplanes guarded by federal security personnel, and receiving federal benefits despite the individual being qualified to do so and having paid their taxes. The "choice" to opt out is truly no choice at all.

Marv Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union, quoted in the Houston Chronicle (29 January 2005), painted an unnerving scenario: "Let's say someone steals your driver's license and substitutes their biometrics on there, and basically puts their identity on that card. They then have an official document that says they are you. How do you prove you are you?"

Our (Un)certain Future

The more that government officials rely upon a single card for proof of identity, the greater the odds that such abuses could occur. This would actually result in less security for any American innocent of wrongdoing, especially one whose identity has been stolen. After all, such a card would contain, in a single embedded memory device, all of the information needed by government officials to identify an individual, as well as all of the information needed by a criminal to steal that individual's identity.

While federal lawmakers claim that the new rules will not create a national ID card reminiscent of identity papers demanded by Nazis, concerned citizens argue that, if it has the same effects as a national ID card, then it will be one for all intents and purposes.

Even if physical cards were not issued, an all-encompassing database of personal information would be a great enough potential threat to our liberties. Not only would it cost us billions of dollars, with no certain return on investment, but there would be no limit to its uses — all in the "best of interests", no doubt.

First our government overseers would justify it by using it to track potential terrorists. Next would be convicted murderers, rapists, and child molesters, out on parole. Then it would be used for tracking tax-invaders and deadbeat fathers.

But why stop there? Surely our elected representatives could rationalize the monitoring of "political extremists" and active members of protest groups and unpopular political parties. Next would probably be gun owners. With each shift in the political winds, more innocent people would be added to this surveillance list, and likely few ever removed.

What if you ended up on this list? Would it take you an extremely long time to be removed (guilty until proven innocent)? We are already seeing that with the no-fly lists compiled by the U.S. Homeland Security bureaucracy. Where does it end?

These are the questions we need to ask ourselves now, or eventually we will hear even more disturbing questions, such as "Where is your proof of identity?!" — and not just in the movies.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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