Democratic Underground

National ID Cards: Still a Bad Idea
December 8, 2001
by Isaac Peterson

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A New York state senator is bringing up a bad idea that has been killed several times in the past and deserves another stake through the heart once and for all.

Roy Goodman is a member of a special anti-terror committee that was created after September 11. They came up with about 50 ideas to fight terrorism in this country, and the national ID card was one of the ideas.

The subject has come up before, and hasn't been adopted. In 1971, the Social Security Administration Task Force considered turning social security cards into national ID cards. In 1973, the Health and Human Services department decided not to push for it, and so did the Federal Advisory Committee on False Identification in 1976. The Carter, Reagan, and Clinton administrations were not in favor of it, and to its credit so far, the present Bush administration hasn't favored it either.

But some members of the House and Senate are fans of this turkey of an idea. It's had the support of Dick Gephardt, George Gekas (of Clinton impeachment fame), Mary Bono (Mrs. I Got You Babe), and Dianne Feinstein. She has said the ID should contain people's photographs, fingerprints and retina scans. Other people want the cards to contain every bit of information known about a person.

They may be interested in the ID's because of Larry Ellison, the CEO and chairman of Oracle. He said "We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card. We need a database behind that, so when you're walking into an airport and you say that you are Larry Ellison, you take that card and put it in a reader and you put your thumb down and that system confirms that this is Larry Ellison.'' He even offered to provide the software at no charge.

Fine Larry, get one, but leave me out of it. Here's why:

  1. Centralized information
  2. Profiling, especially racial
  3. Potentially harsh penalties for failing to have one at any time
  4. A national ID would basically be a domestic passport

Right now, information about me, and every one of us, is in lots of computers all over the country. Who knows how many? If you you own a home, car, property, stocks or bonds, you're in some computer database. If you have health coverage, a job, 401K, or life or homeowners insurance, you're in some computer database. If you've applied for credit, have credit, ever been sued, or ever been arrested, you are in some computer database somewhere. And guess what? If the FBI doesn't have a file on you, but you write and ask them if you do, they will be more than happy to start one on you. There is just no way to know how many computers already have information about you and me.

Now, if we had national ID cards, a lot of that information scattered all over creation and beyond will be in a central database. The plans I've heard floated call for the little magnetic strips (like the ones on credit cards, and in some states like Minnesota), to hold an awful lot of information about you. And all that info would be kept in one place. I have to wonder if there would be any provision to find out just what information is on the card we would be forced to carry around.

And, with all the other garbage that's been tossed around that's "for our own good" since 9/11, I have to wonder about this one — these are a lot of the same people who holler about the government having no business in our lives. And they've been the first ones who've come up with all those great ideas we hear about that tell me they don't care about us or the Constitution. All that information in one place...this isn't about making anything easier or safer for us, it's about making it easier for them.

Would we have the right to know exactly what information about us would be on the cards, and whether the information is correct? How would we know? We probably wouldn't be able to find out. But if we could find out, would we have the right to demand that incorrect information gets changed? And in a system that would have to be networked to the extent this one would have to be, my money has to go on things getting screwed up. Think about it — how many new bureaucrats would we need? Who would oversee and coordinate what all these people are doing? What quality control would there be? Some people want these cards to eventually take the place of Social Security cards, ATM and debit cards, you name it. How we get there without massive screwups?

If it doesn't sound like all that big a deal, think about this: right now when your credit card is lost or stolen, you have to go through loads of crap to get it replaced. Same with other cards we use all the time. But if we lose a national ID, think of all the kinds of fresh hell we could be looking at, with all the information on that card, and we really wouldn't even know what all the information on the card was. Think of the times you've read about hackers breaking into computers, even government and military ones, and I hope I don't have to press my point too hard. My point is that these could take identity theft to the next level.

And some countries that already have them report that a small percentage of employees with access to the database have been caught selling information on cardholders. So we would need to figure out some way to build safeguards against that in as well.

Racial profiling would move from an art to a science. The guy in New York proposing the cards said national ID cards "would eliminate all racial profiling". He didn't say how. He was possibly too high from whatever he had been smoking to explain that one.

"Well, Isaac, howcum you don't think ID cards would end racial profiling"?

Well, to a lot of us, law enforcement hasn't exactly been Officer Friendly. A routine traffic stop for minorities is a different routine than most of you are used to. I've had my car impounded for not having my driver's license with me. And I had an officer torment me because on another occasion he would not believe that my ID was a real, state issued ID. (I wasn't doing anything illegal or wrong either time. Except if you count being a black guy. And I've had other arbitrary run-ins.) If we had national ID's, we'd probably have the same requirement as now, that we need them in our possession all the time. I don't have any trouble believing the penalty for not having it would be worse than what the state can do right now. In countries that already have national ID's, the police have the authority to detain someone for 24 hours. I don't have any trouble believing that some in law enforcement would ask for the card hoping someone had left home without it. These cards would make it easier to discriminate.

What I just talked about was the local Barney Fife variety cops. I don't even want to think about Feds.

And since the cards would hold records of where you've been, police would have plenty of incentive to demand a card, hoping to find something in your record you've done somewhere else. I can see how these cards could open up all kinds of fishing expeditions, looking for some reason to make someone's life just a little bit less fun than it already is. So no, I don't see how national ID cards would end racial profiling.

The people who want these things say they would be a tool to fight terrorism, but I have my doubts about that, too. These cards would supposedly be impossible to fake, but if our government can make them, how long do you think it would be before someone who could spend the kind of money that Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden could find out how to make them? When Australia issued theirs, it was only 2 months before the first forgery was found.

And the last thing is that the cards would be, in some ways, a domestic passport. It would be a record of where you've been that you've had to produce the card, and that would give the Federal government a way to track where we've been, terrorist or not. And don't forget, the government is the one who gets to decide whether you're a terrorist or not.

Tom Campbell, who used to be a Representative from California said "I strongly oppose a national ID card. If you have an ID card, it is solely for the purpose of allowing the government to compel you to produce it. This would essentially give to the government the power to demand that we show our papers. It is a very dangerous thing. The card could be used by police to track travel movements or to single out people with unpopular views or certain ethnic backgrounds for surveillance". You can tell me I'm paranoid, and I'll tell you there are too many people working too many hours of overtime to give me reasons to feel that way. Since 9/11, too much of what is coming from the top has not a thing to do with catching terrorists or keeping us safe, despite what they're telling us. Military tribunals, USA PATRIOT Bill, expanded police powers, expanding wiretaps, searching homes and computer hard drives without warrants or notification, all the ideas that are law or that are still just being talked about are making us a police state. And most of this stuff Ashcroft wanted to do before September anyway. You can tell me I'm an alarmist, and I'll just tell you why I'm alarmed.

So, to put all of the above another way:

  1. The idea smells worse than a bucket of catfish out in the sun all day at a Willie Nelson concert.
  2. For fighting terrorism, national ID cards would be as useful as a football bat.

These cards would be the latest tool for invading our privacy and having the government in our lives. Our government would go from Big Brother to Big Daddy.