Five reasons why national ID cards are a bad idea

Jay Stanley and Barry Steinhardt are privacy public education coordinator and associate director, respectively, of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and have allowed this piece to be posted on's community pages.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have revived proposals for a national identity card system as a way to verify the identity of airline passengers and to prevent terrorists from entering the country. For example, Oracle Corp. Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison recently called for the creation of a national ID system and offered to provide the software for it without charge.

The newest calls for a national ID are only the latest in a long series of proposals that have cropped up repeatedly during the past decade, usually in the context of immigration policy, but also in connection with gun control or health care reform. But the creation of a national ID card remains a misplaced, superficial quick fix. It offers only a false sense of security and won't enhance our security, but it does pose serious threats to our civil liberties and civil rights. A national ID won't keep us safe or free.

Reason No. 1: A national ID card system wouldn't solve the problem that is inspiring it.

A national ID card system won't prevent terrorism. It wouldn't have thwarted the Sept. 11 hijackers, for example, many of whom reportedly had identification documents on them and were in the country legally.

Terrorists and criminals will continue to be able to obtain -- by legal and illegal means -- the documents needed to get government IDs, such as birth certificates. Yes, these new documents will have data like digital fingerprints on them, but that won't prove real identity -- just that the carrier has obtained what could easily be a fraudulent document.

And their creation wouldn't justify the cost to American taxpayers, which, according to the Social Security Administration, would be at least $4 billion. It is an impractical and ineffective proposal -- a simplistic and naive attempt to use gee-whiz technology to solve complex social and economic problems.

Reason No. 2: An ID card system will lead to a slippery slope of surveillance and monitoring of citizens.

A national ID card system wouldn't protect us from terrorism, but it would create a system of internal passports that would significantly diminish the freedom and privacy of law-abiding citizens. Once put in place, it's exceedingly unlikely that such a system would be restricted to its original purpose. The original Social Security Act contained strict prohibitions against use of Social Security cards for unrelated purposes, but those strictures have been routinely ignored and steadily abandoned over the past 50 years. A national ID system would threaten the privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and gradually increase the control that government and business wields over citizens.

Reason No. 3: A national ID card system would require the creation of a database of all Americans.

What happens when an ID card is stolen? What proof is used to decide who gets a card? A national ID would require a governmental database of every person in the U.S. containing continually updated identifying information. It would likely contain many errors, any one of which could render someone unemployable and possibly much worse until he gets his file straightened out. And once that database is created, its use would almost certainly expand. Law enforcement and other government agencies would soon ask to link into it, while employers, landlords, credit agencies, mortgage brokers, direct mailers, landlords, private investigators, civil litigants and a long list of other parties would begin seeking access, further eroding the privacy that Americans have always expected in their personal lives.

Reason No. 4: ID cards would function as internal passports that would allow the government to monitor citizens' movements.

Americans have long had a visceral aversion to building a society in which the authorities could act like totalitarian sentries and demand, "Your papers please!" And that everyday intrusiveness would be conjoined with the full power of modern computer and database technology. When a police officer or security guard scans your ID card with his pocket bar code reader, for example, will a permanent record be created of that check, including the time and your location? How long before office buildings, doctors' offices, gas stations, highway tolls, subways and buses incorporate the ID card into their security or payment systems for greater efficiency? The result could be a nation where citizens' movements inside their own country are monitored and recorded through these internal passports.

Reason No. 5: ID cards would foster new forms of discrimination and harassment.

Rather than eliminating discrimination, as some have claimed, a national identity card would foster new forms of discrimination and harassment of anyone perceived as looking or sounding "foreign." That is what happened after Congress passed the Employer Sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1985: widespread discrimination against foreign-looking American workers, especially Asians and Hispanics. A 1990 General Accounting Office study found that almost 20% of employers engaged in such practices. A national ID card would have the same effect on a massive scale, as Asians, Hispanics and other minorities become subject to ceaseless status and identity checks from police, banks, merchants and others. Failure to carry a national ID card would likely come to be viewed as a reason for search, detention or arrest of minorities. The stigma and humiliation of constantly having to prove that they are Americans or legal immigrants would weigh heavily on such groups.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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