New York Times
October 7, 2001

National I.D. Cards: One Size Fits All


IMAGINE you were moving to a new state and the government required you to register at the local police precinct. Or that before the hospital let Mom leave with her newborn, Dad had to register the newly arrived citizen at a central office. Or that the police could stop you and demand to see your papers while you stepped out for a quart of milk.

Hard to accept? Not for Italians, because like most Europeans they live with these rules, though in Italy the chasm between theory and practice can be huge. Whatever the practice, though, scores of governments have the potential to wield strong monitoring powers over their citizens.

Chief among their tools is the national identity card. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the idea of universal I.D. cards is being raised in this country, setting off a debate that touches on what it means to be American, and how to balance freedom with the need for security.

Polls in the weeks after the attacks show that Americans favor such identity cards. About 70 percent of those interviewed by the Pew Research Center from Sept. 13 to 17 said they approved of the requirement that all citizens carried one, to be produced on request by police. The following week, in a New York Times/CBS News poll, 56 percent said they would accept mandatory national electronic identification cards. A CNN/Time poll conducted on Sept. 27 reported a similar figure.

Helping fuel the debate was a widely published suggestion by Larry Ellison, the chief executive of the software maker Oracle, that the United States should establish a national I.D. system, embedding people's fingerprints on cards and creating a database so airport guards could check identities. Mr. Ellison offered to donate the software.

Similar ideas were floated in editorial and letters pages, with proponents saying the I.D.'s could protect airline travelers at check-in and guard against identity theft. With the plethora of personal information already gathered by private industry, some argued, any threats to privacy would not matter that much anyway.

But given the nation's strong tradition of privacy protection, its innate resistance to government intrusion and a growing protest against the use of personal data by marketers, the I.D. idea still seems far off. The Bush administration has rejected the idea and the terrorism legislation now under consideration in Congress does not call for national I.D.'s.

Nevertheless, at least one company that makes scanners has reportedly said several federal agencies had been in touch about using the devices in connection with I.D. cards. And some in Congress say the time could be ripe for a serious debate.

Other governments agree. Officials in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and the Philippines have also raised the idea.

Privacy International, a watchdog group in London, estimates that about 100 countries many of them developing nations have compulsory national I.D.'s. Some, like Denmark, issue I.D. numbers at birth around which a lifetime of personal information accretes. They are generally accepted among the citizenry of European countries, like France, with a tradition of centralized government and with extensive social welfare systems.

"In reality, the card is just the visible part of a vast information spectrum," said Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International. "To some it's a security icon; it represents the potential for a safer society. To others it represents a more efficient government. To others, it represents cracking down on illegal immigrants. But ultimately, the card is worthless without some sort of integrated computer system behind it." And that, he says, presents a danger to privacy, particularly in the developed world.

During the Apartheid era, South Africa produced the most nefarious sort of I.D.'s, pass books that specified what areas blacks were allowed to circulate in and work. The pass laws allowed the police to arrest blacks without cards a common form of harassment.

In the United States, resistance to a national I.D. dwells firmly in the deep-seated tradition of privacy protection, something that spans the ideological spectrum. "It is a traditional human rights notion that we see infusing many different constitutional doctrines in this country," said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. "You do have a right to be left alone in the most literal sense."

A national I.D. could also become a powerful tool for ethnic profiling, Ms. Strossen argued, suggesting that the authorities would be more likely to stop Arab-Americans for an I.D. check. (The Time/CNN poll found that half of those surveyed favored requiring Arab-Americans as a group to carry federal I.D. cards.)

OTHER opponents argue that a national I.D. and the information behind it would only strengthen the power of bureaucracies. And they say it will offer little protection because forgers will inevitably catch up to the technology.

Right now, the United States has embarked on what could be considered a national I.D. pilot project for Mexicans. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has approved four million cards under a new program for short-term, short-range border crossings. The new cards have fingerprint and personal information on an optically etched strip.

Actually, the best hope for proponents of national I.D.'s may be sitting in our wallets. It is the driver's license. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has recommended to Congress that the nation adopt a standard proof of identity for the issuing of licenses. Such a program would cost up $35 million to develop, and up to $20 million a year to operate, the association says. At the same time, it is looking at national standards for drivers' licenses, including what sort of biometric data like fingerprints and face recognition to include.

Right now, 36 states and Washington, D.C., have or are planning drivers' licenses with two- dimensional bar codes that can contain 2,000 bytes of information, enough for a driving record, photograph and fingerprint data, said Nathan Root, who directs the association's standards program.

So now imagine this.

A police officer stops you in your car, scans your license, matches your fingerprint with a central database and has immediate access to a plethora of information, including whether you are on a terrorist watch list.

What would the Italians think?

Copyright 2001. New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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