Plans to create a de facto national identification card using driver’s licenses and other documents are gaining ground as the belief grows that they will enhance security in a nation still reeling from terrorist attacks.
Supporters say the formal introduction of some sort of national ID scheme was inevitable following the Sept. 11 assaults on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, as lawmakers and the Bush administration searched frantically for ways to beef up security and reassure a skittish public.
On Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that states are working with federal officials to develop “a new generation of driver’s licenses that could be checked anywhere and would contain electronically stored information such as fingerprints. …”
Opponents of the idea, however, say identifying the 184 million Americans who drive is but a short step away from developing a national identification system that would encompass everyone.
“What you’re seeing here is sort of a hardening of the driver’s license that could lead to development of a national ID system without creating a national ID card,” Marc Rotenberg, head of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, told USA Today earlier this week.
Last year, as part of a conference report on the Department of Transportation’s appropriations request, Congress directed that agency to develop “model guidelines for encoded data on driver’s licenses.”
“In light of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it is clear that all levels of government need to work in concert to deter and prevent future attacks. One means of doing so is to ensure that individuals asked to identify themselves are not using false identities,” the conference report said.
Recognizing that today’s computer technology was such that phony driver’s licenses and other important personal documents could be easily created, lawmakers said they would “strongly encourage the department to consider the development of model guidelines specifying the types of encoded data that should be placed on driver’s licenses for security purposes, and to work in concert with states and related licensing bodies toward the early implementation of such measures. …”
Conferees said the use of biometric technologies at airports and other sensitive areas would “benefit the nation’s efforts to improve security as well as assist in reducing fraud and underage drinking.”
Reports this week said the Transportation Department’s new security agency would most likely take control of the ID project.
U.S. law may already provide the government with the legal tools it needs to gather the information it would seek in developing any new driver’s license-based national identification system.
According to Sect. 2721 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, personal driver’s license information can be divulged by state officials “for use by any government agency, including any court or law enforcement agency, in carrying out its functions. …”
President Bush has said he doesn’t think a national ID card is necessary, but other experts say state ID cards would essentially accomplish the same goal – rapid, instant identification of citizens who could then be tracked from place to place electronically.
Private groups are already developing standards for a national ID card. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is set to unveil its standards Monday, then ask the federal government to provide $70 million in funding to build the system.
Jason King, a spokesman for the group, told Reuters that birth certificates and Social Security cards are currently used to identify people. State and federal officials, however, note that those can be easily forged.
“There’s no need to create a second national ID card. You already have one. We’re just talking about making it better and more secure,” King said.
Duncan Frissell, a New York City attorney, noted in a December column that “proponents of a national ID card have a responsibility to tell us exactly what the system will do to day-to-day life in America.” But, he said, “they are unlikely to do so because most thoughtful Americans would be alarmed at the prospect.”
Such cards “are not really about identity, they’re about authorization,” he said. In essence, a “modern national ID system” would “require Americans to obtain [federal or state] government permission to travel, work, rent or buy housing, obtain medical care, use financial services and make many purchases.”
Frissell also noted that such “authorization could be denied for many reasons, including database errors, a suspicious transaction profile, being a deadbeat parent, failure to pay taxes or fines, and any other social control measures Congress wishes to hang on the system.”
“When you present your national ID to complete a transaction, you will actually be asking the federal government for its permission,” he said.
Bob Levy, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Washington, D.C.-based CATO Institute agreed, pointing out that the government could make non-compliance difficult if not impossible.
In order to get “voluntary compliance,” he told WorldNetDaily, “basically, the government will say, ‘You’re going to give up some privacy by showing your card, or you’re going to give up a lot more by subjecting yourself to all sorts of restrictions on your day-to-day activities.'”
Some states are already taking concrete steps to create the sort of ID card that contains the kind of information easily plugged into federal databases. In Florida this week, for example, a state Senate committee endorsed a plan creating tighter rules for getting driver’s licenses and state ID cards.
The plan approved by the committee would require fingerprints and facial photo scans to get a license to drive in the state. But officials stressed that the Florida Legislature would still have to approve the plan, and money to buy the equipment would have to be found before the plan could be implemented.
Those requirements are in line with the kind of standards the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is developing, King told Reuters. State identification cards ought to come with biometric bar codes that contain various data and should be able to be linked to federal agencies such as the FBI, IRS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and others, he said.
“Those are partnerships that would have to be developed down the way,” he said.
National ID cards “are of little use unless they’re connected with a centralized database,” Levy said, when asked if supporters’ claims that the cards wouldn’t be abused were bogus.
“If the requirement were limited to people producing at airports or borders some sort of photo ID or passport with your name, address and even a fingerprint, that wouldn’t be objectionable,” he said. “But the ID scheme is a good deal more insidious than that. Just knowing that you have a photo ID and the photo matches your face does little to help authorities track down terrorists.”
Levy said for the cards to be any good, authorities would “have to know something about the person, such as biometric information.” That information would then “have to be tied into a computer, which in turn is tied into a database, which in turn is developed and administered by government officials, which in turn is subject to abuse.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Larry Ellison, CEO of software giant Oracle, openly called for lawmakers to adopt a national ID card and said he would donate the software for the project.
Under his proposal, millions of Americans would be fingerprinted, and the information would be placed on a database used by airport security officials to verify identities of travelers at airplane gates, the San Jose Mercury News said Sept. 22.
“We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card,” Ellison told KPIX-TV in San Francisco. “We’re quite willing to provide the software for this absolutely free.”
By October, the paper said, Ellison had met with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in Washington, D.C., and with officials from the FBI and CIA to discuss the idea. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has also endorsed the idea, as well as retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Harvard law professor and civil-rights expert Alan Dershowitz and Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy.
Ellison said the cards would be voluntary, but said anyone who refuses one should be subjected to more rigorous identification standards.
“What will happen if too few people take the card,” said CATO’s Levy, “the government will simply raise the ante. It’ll make the things that require authorization much more extensive, so not having the card becomes insufferable.
“That’s not voluntary at all; it’s coercion,” he said.