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Post-911: A National ID Card?
David M. Brown

Report: Your Papers, Please
Get the special reort: YOUR PAPERS, PLEASE

In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, talk of war was attended by an outpouring of patriotic expression, and of support for the commander in chief. To most Americans a military response against the terrorists and their state sponsors was both warranted and mandatory.

But this war would be fought on many fronts, we were told.

One front was domestic. And the battle at home would require, it was said, certain trade-offs. Almost as soon as the towers collapsed, pundits and politicians assured Americans that we must have a new "balance" between liberty and security. This new balance would entail more invasive security procedures at the airport (no warrants necessary), more surveillance of email and online activity (no warrants necessary), more tracking of financial transactions (no warrants necessary), more "detaining" of visa violators or "suspicious" persons of unfortunate ethnicity (no warrants necessary). Many of the new detainees, we soon learned, were being held for weeks and even months without evidence and without arrest-perhaps without even any reasonable suspicion of a connection to terrorism.

There would also--some hoped--be more systematic and robust identification and tracking of U.S. residents. All persons, not merely those suspected of criminal wrongdoing, would be subject to this surveillance.

Most of these "new" proposals had been promoted long before the events of September 11. Although some of them--like expansion of wiretap authority--focused on persons already regarded as criminal suspects, others targeted all of us, indiscriminately.

How willing are Americans to give up freedom--not only the freedom of a select few, but the freedom of all of us--in the name of security?

Soon after the attack, polling by Pew Research Center indicated that 55 percent of the American public believed it was necessary to forfeit some civil liberties in exchange for greater security. (Only 29 percent of respondents in a 1997 poll had thought so.) An even larger majority, 70 percent, said that all citizens should be required to carry a national ID card, to be shown to any police officer upon request. This historically high level of support for a national ID card likely had something to do with the recency of the attacks. When people are rattled, they may be more willing to endorse Draconian measures than they would be after they've had a chance to collect themselves.

In early October of 2001, a new poll by Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates showed 51 percent of Americans supporting a national ID card. But when asked if they support such a card as "a measure to combat terrorism and make the use of false identities more difficult," the percentage rose to 61 percent, not much less than what Pew had found in mid-September. However, a survey conducted in early March of 2002, some six months after the massacre, found that only 26 percent of respondents supported a national ID card, while 41 percent were opposed-perhaps reflecting the impact of public debate. Respondents are more supportive of an ID card that would be used to build a database of airline passengers than they are of a national ID card that would be used to gain access to banking or health services. And they prefer that private agencies administer any card of even limited purpose. "Our data shows that people would only support a national ID for very specific, very limited purposes and that they're suspicious of what government agencies will do with their information," says Richard Hunter, a vice president at Gartner.

One partisan of a national ID card is Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, a leading maker of database software. Within a couple weeks of the disaster, Ellison proposed to give government the software for a national database of private information that would be linked to a national ID card. "We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card," he said. A lieutenant at Oracle, vice president Tim Hoechst, helpfully added: "By establishing a standard and secure national identifier, we could ensure that any system that chose to use it could effectively share information with other systems that use it"-making it easier than ever to snoop on hitherto private doings.

Although Ellison claims that privacy is merely an "illusion" in that all the data-gathering and data-revealing we fear is already being done anyway, he also argues that the new ID standards and technology he proposes would enable vastly greater surveillance and authorization of our everyday activities, implying that we do retain some amount of privacy that could yet be forfeited. The argument seems to be: given the fact that we have traveled all this way already in reducing the privacy of innocent individuals, why not go all the way-what's the big deal?

This is not a rare conclusion, unfortunately. But by the same reasoning, kicking a man when he's down could be "justified" by pointing out that he is, after all, already down--so what's the big deal?

The issue, however, is whether persons have certain rights to freedom and therefore privacy to begin with, and also whether violating them is destructive. The fact that such rights may have been even massively violated in the past--that there is precedent--hardly means that further incursions are therefore justified. It may be that neither the previous incursions nor the prospective ones are justified.

Today, Americans may be less certain of the wisdom of a national identification regime than they were on September 12. But public opinion on any given day will not be decisive. If most Americans harbor only vague doubts about a national ID card while major players in the media, Silicon Valley, and the government remain eager to exploit every opportunity to propel their agenda, the NID card or a de facto near-equivalent could come to pass anyway. That's especially true if people can be persuaded to at least grudgingly acquiesce in each new "limited" use of a new ID card or allied surveillance scheme. Each such "advance" would then serve as precedent for yet wider intrusions.

For those who do not care whether they are living in a goldfish bowl, or even a cage, so long as they get their grub, the rise of the surveillance state may be perfectly congenial. You and I may find it less congenial.

(Excerpted from "Your Papers, Please: How a National Identification Regime Would Threaten Privacy, Freedom--And Security")

Things you can do, and that others have done, to fight NIDs:

David M. Brown is a freelance writer and editor. Brown helped develop the Bureaucrash anti-NID site www.iamnotanumber.org. The above article is adapted from "Your Papers, Please: How a National Identification Regime Would Threaten Privacy, Freedom--And Security," a 46-page report on attempts to impose a national ID card on Americans, and what the likely consequences would be. To obtain a copy, contact the publisher, Emergency Tips, at emergencytips@yahoo.com.


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Copyright © 2002 by Doing Freedom! magazine. All rights reserved.