While opposition grows to a national ID card in the U.S., citizens of the southeast European nation of Serbia have successfully pressed their government to back off on a plan to make biometric data chips compulsory in the country’s new citizen cards.
The decision followed a pitched battle prior to the Jan. 21 election as opponents criticized the accompanying plan for a centralized database of citizen information and the taking of fingerprints. Biometric technology uses data from sources such as fingerprints, facial features and iris scans to authenticate a person’s identity.
In the U.S., the Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005 calls for a national ID portion to go into effect by May 2008. It requires states to participate in a federal data-sharing program when issuing driver’s licenses, making those licenses de facto national ID cards.
A number of state legislatures have passed nonbinding measures in opposition, including the Maine House and Senate, which yesterday almost unanimously approved a resolution refusing to implement the Real ID Act.
Responding to public outcry in Serbia, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s administration, in one of its last acts in office, took the unusual step of announcing a decree before the government’s session this month.
Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic told the press that “due to privacy concerns raised by citizens” the new Law on Identification Cards would be modified to ensure the chips, with a digitalized photo and fingerprint, would be included only upon the card holder’s specific request.
Citizens’ groups and non-governmental organizations that initiated an opposition campaign after the law passed last July applauded the concession but vowed to continue the fight until the entire law was struck down.
Attorney Dragoljub Djordjevic, a founder of the group that spearheaded the anti-biometric media campaign, For Life without Branding, says his organization plans to challenge the law in the Serbian Supreme Court.
“That would have been our first step if not for the fact that the court has had a vacancy for months and cannot legally convene,” said Djordjevic, who is also vice president of the Serbian Bar Association. “As soon as it does, however, we shall challenge the centralized database the police plan to set up as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. We shall also challenge the taking of fingerprints of normal, law-abiding citizens as though they were convicted criminals.”
Large public outcry developed over the way the law was passed – without prior public debate – and a scandal inside the Interior Ministry itself arose from the purchase of equipment for more than $100 million outside of regular procurement procedures and a full three years before the law itself came before the parliament.
Church helped lead the way
Observers agree the Serbian Orthodox Church made the biggest difference. During its bi-annual Holy Assembly of Archpriests in early October, the church issued a decision delegating the Holy Synod – its executive body – to “intervene with the relevant authorities in order to prevent the recently-passed Law on ID cards from being put into practice.”
The Serbian Church followed the pattern of similar protests in 2000-2002 within the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, when their respective governments attempted to institute compulsory electronic ID cards and tax numbers. Many church members raised objections to having an object – the “smart chip” – on their ID cards tied to data to which they didn’t have free access. They also were wary of having their personal data centralized in electronic form and available to unspecified third parties.
Serbians additionally became irritated when the Interior Ministry’s claims that “such ID cards were already widely used in the European Union” were proven false. Most countries in Western Europe either have optional biometric ID cards or non-compulsory ID cards, and few have centralized ID databases.
Also, IT professionals were angered by another Interior Ministry contention– that the biometric ID would ease introduction of government electronic services
“Electronic government services do not require an ID card at all,” insisted Oliver Subotic, a computer expert and theologian, who has written two books on the ethics of IT technology and on biometrics. “Accessing e-government services by way of an ID card is a needless intrusion of privacy. Many European Union countries have well-developed e-government services without having issued electronic ID cards at all.”
Finally, Serbian public opinion, still sensitive to NATO after its 1999 bombing campaign, was receptive to arguments that the ID cards – with parts of its system purchased from Motorola – were a potential avenue for spying on the country’s database.
“Motorola has been working closely with the Pentagon for decades,” says Sladjan Mijaljevic, head of the nongovernmental group Truth. “How do we know that there aren’t backdoor Trojan viruses installed making our nation’s personal data an open book?”
The grass-roots campaign was perhaps the first to successfully challenge the central government since the deposing of former Yugoslavian and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in street demonstrations in October 2000.
Some observes say that amid the hardships of the “transition” from a socialist to a capitalist economy with its heavy unemployment and economic uncertainty, the anti-biometric chip campaign may be the harbinger of new winds blowing on the Serbian political scene.
Meanwhile, in America …
In the U.S., the Real ID Act stipulates that after May 11, 2008, “a federal agency may not accept, for any official purpose, a driver’s license or identification card issued by a State to any person unless the State is meeting the requirements” specified in the Real ID Act. While states can issue non-federal ID cards, they would not be accepted by the Transportation Security Administration for travel purposes, grounding those who don’t carry federally approved cards.
The data required to be included in each card are, among other things, the person’s full legal name, date of birth, gender, driver’s license number, a digital photo, the person’s address and machine-readable technology so the information can be ready easily by government or banking personnel.
Each state must agree to share the data on the cards with every other state.
Supporters of the law say it does not require a “national” ID card because each state issues its own cards, not the federal government. But detractors note the cards are virtual national IDs since the federal law has dictated what data must be included and that each state must share its database with the others.
As WND reported, the Department of Transportation, acting through a Security and Prosperity Partnership “working group,” is preparing this year to issue North American biometric border passes to Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. “trusted travelers” according to documents released to WND columnist and author Jerome R. Corsi under a Freedom of Information Act request.