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National ID Card

I was just listening to an NPR interview with some guy who had some proposal to improve the voting system in America. "Couldn't this become," asks the interviewer, "a de facto national ID card?" Now all the sudden I'm actually listening. Thank God! A national ID card! Like, you know, every other country. So we could have effective law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies. Hooray! But no. The guy's climbing back as fast as possible. "Oh, no, it's not a national ID card at all..."

This is all by way of saying that I'm baffled -- simply baffled -- by America's lack of a national ID card and by the motives of a national ID's opponents.

August 7, 2004 | Permalink


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I'm glad to know you're up Saturday morning listening to NPR too!

Are you really convinced that a national ID isn't problematic? I have to say that five years ago I might have agreed, but with this administration's disregard of due process, expansion of the FISA court, serial misuse of confidential information for political purposes, and the like, I am pretty skeptical.

Posted by: Fred Vincy | Aug 7, 2004 9:38:29 AM

If you ask me it's all tied up with the legacy of that damned book, 1984. It's not prophecy, people!

Posted by: Kriston | Aug 7, 2004 9:52:16 AM

No need to worry, Matt. We are in the process of effectively constructing a national ID card system, as states coordinate and link their separate identity databases. The end result will be the same, for better or for worse.

Of course, I can't see a national ID card doing anything to make us much safer as a nation, and I say this both as an information security researcher and a concerned citizen. It will be forgeable by determined adversaries and certainly won't fix underlying security problems such as our fundamentally porous borders. In fact, I'm interested to hear what, exactly, proponents of the national ID card think it will acheive other than a huge cost to the taxpayer and increased Federal control.

Posted by: Matt G. | Aug 7, 2004 9:57:56 AM

A more suitable remedy would be an independent body to regulate nearly every aspect of voting. Most western countries have an election commiession that is responsible for everything from registering voters, to drawing up boundaries (no gerrymandering), the body could also be responsible for removing felons etc.

Posted by: Remy | Aug 7, 2004 10:01:19 AM

I'd like to make the following deal with proponents of a national ID card:

1. Publicly announce an absolute ceiling on how long we'll have to wait in line to get this card, assuming we've brought the appropriate documentation.
2. If more than 500,000 people have to wait in line longer than this ceiling, the program gets scrapped until it can be accomplished properly.

Also, there had better be more National ID offices than there are passport offices.

Posted by: digamma | Aug 7, 2004 10:29:58 AM

What can a national ID card do that would help anything? Nobody who supports creating one ever says... and you wonder why Americans don't want one?
It just sounds like a measure taken entirely for the purposes of controlling us. As for the using voter registration to create a national ID card. ha ha ha ha ha. Do you even know why voter registration was enacted?It was a progressive movement scheme To stifle the poor and immigrant votes. Since it STILL serves the same basic function (people don't think to register till the election nears, by which time (around october) you can no longer register to vote.
Do you think they'd give you a national ID card that automatically gives you the right to vote? If they were going to do that, they'd just eliminate voter registration requirements entirely, like plenty of other nations.

Posted by: soul | Aug 7, 2004 10:41:30 AM

Imagine John Ashcroft being Attourney General forever.

Still want a National ID card?

Posted by: Jaybird | Aug 7, 2004 10:47:11 AM

Jaybird: Yes.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Aug 7, 2004 11:18:31 AM

More popups and spam. Keep me out of your damn databases, thank you.

I will accept an international ID card when there are no longer any borders. Labor must be free! Workers of the world disperse!

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 7, 2004 11:21:41 AM

This is just a little like shutting the barn door long after the cows have left. If you want to fly, you have to show a government issued photo ID. If you want to drive you have to have a government issued ID which in most states also requires a photo.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Aug 7, 2004 11:22:11 AM

For a laugh, see this Flash video from ACLU. Make sure your volume is turned on.

Now, a serious point. I have lived in 3 countries besides US: Canada, UK, Japan. And I don't recall any national ID cards in any of those places...
In Canada, you have photo ID cards for your provincial health care coverage. But I definitely wouldn't call that a national ID...

Posted by: next big thing | Aug 7, 2004 12:14:30 PM

This nat'l ID business is one of those serendipitous cases in which the GOP's libertarian/fundy alliance makes sense, at least politically, as both groups' distrust of duly-elected government borders, on this issue, on the paranoid.

Much, probably most, of the opposition on the right to a national ID card stems from the belief that such a badge is the foretold "mark of the beast" from the New Testament Book of Revelations.

Posted by: son volt | Aug 7, 2004 12:19:05 PM


National ID cards are a terrible ID. You're wrong that every other country has them -- the UK doesn't have them (and isn't particularly strict on ID checks). However the government is thinking of introducing them.

See http://ex-parrot.com/~chris/wwwitter/20040402-whats_on_the_cards.html

and other posts for many good reasons to oppose them, not least the technology isn't good enough.

Posted by: Richard | Aug 7, 2004 12:21:11 PM

I've heard A. Dershowitz make a pretty stong case in favor of them. I don't recall the details, but I think he is of the opinion that it could enhance security and civil liberties, by regularizing and standardizing the approach to identification/security clearance, etc. (in other words set some transparent ground rules). I believe he was talking about the highest of the high tech variety of ID technology. I've never thought of Dershowitz as an advocate of big brothery.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Aug 7, 2004 12:42:48 PM

I don't have a problem with the concept but if you need a federal government document to establish your identity, then just get a passport. You can't get better national ID than that. And it's completely voluntary.

Posted by: Gabriel | Aug 7, 2004 12:44:55 PM

I don't have a problem with the concept but if you need a federal government document to establish your identity, then just get a passport.

Gabriel: that's true, but passports are bigger and bulkier than driver's license style cards, and I suspect are more expensive to produce. They're also not optimized to work with the most advanced scanning equipment, which is really one of the underlying reasons driving the move towards national ID cards (smart cards, that is).

Also, you need to be a citizen to get a U.S. passport, and not every resident of the U.S. is a citizen.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Aug 7, 2004 1:02:56 PM

P. B. Almeida,

But those who aren't and are here legally are required to have either green cards or work permits which are photo id's and are supposed to keep it with them.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Aug 7, 2004 1:06:15 PM

Umm... do the words "Mark of the Beast" ring any bells, Matt?

A good chunk of the opposition to a national I.D. card is from the Evangelical crowd. Throw in the civil libertarians, the plain old Libertarians, as well as the Black Helicopter paranoid types and you have a potent if somewhat motley coalition against such an idea here in the States.

Much more scary than national I.D. cards are RFID chips, which are about to become an indispenable feature of American commerce - not to mention a potential civil liberties nightmare! Wired does a nice write-up on the promises and dangers of RFID in its July 2004 issue.

Now a national I.D. card with built-in RFID - there's your Mark of the Beast!

Posted by: oodja | Aug 7, 2004 1:36:03 PM

A national ID card, if I remember my "Database Nation" reading from a few years ago, could actually serve to *protect* civil liberties if properly used.

Posted by: praktike | Aug 7, 2004 1:43:48 PM

First, I think it would be best to address Bruce Schneier's discussion of why a national ID card is not useful. Bruce is a mathematician and profesional information security dude, and his analyses are generally considered both thoughtful and practical, so it wouldn't hurt to at least mention the other side.But if you want a short answer, here is mine: a national ID card is very similar to the theory that a reduction in taxes is a "tax expenditure". It assumes that all freedom (wealth) of US Citizens belongs to the government, that government decides what freedoms (wealth) Citizens may have, and that when Citizens keep their freedom (wealth) it is a "cost" to the government or a loss of "privilage" to the Citizen [note that I despise this line of argument when applied to taxation even though I personally believe federal taxes {particularly gasoline tax} should be higher].So even if Bruce's argument that a national ID card flat won't work is wrong, a national ID card is unacceptable because it represents an ultimate reduction in freedom for Citizens. I will omit the obligatory Ben Franklin quote here, but I will point out that the idea that a national ID card will not reduce freedom went out the window the first time the government argued successfully in court that a driver's license was a "privilage". Unless you want to work I guess.I would also ask that you show me one high-stakes government proces that can't be subverted by a person with enough patience and money. Subversion of a national ID card process would leave bad guys wandering around with 100% unquestionable ID. Great.Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Aug 7, 2004 2:52:09 PM

Sorry, but I hate the idea. Maybe it's irrational, but the idea that I have to give the government more information about me, plus get fingerprinted and photographed (cause you know that would be involved) gives me the willies.

Yes, I know that a lot of my information is already out there. I still don't want a national card. I think it's just a hop, skip and a jump to a world where cops are saying to you, "papers please?"

Posted by: fourlegsgood | Aug 7, 2004 4:33:06 PM

Hell, Matt, let's just skip the card and go with a chip implant somewhere in the head (you can't leave your head at home). Powering the thing over a human lifetime is the only obstacle.

Posted by: tcb or tcb3 | Aug 7, 2004 4:54:52 PM

I think it's just a hop, skip and a jump to a world where cops are saying to you, "papers please?"

I think this is dead on fourlegsgood. Hienlein (and I can't remember the exact quote here) said, "Show me a state where you are required to have a piece of paper to prove who you are and I will show you a state on the slope of decline."

I don't believe that the world has changed that much since September 11th. The idea of having to prove who I am at random to people in positions of authority pisses me off.

Posted by: Grotesqueticle | Aug 7, 2004 7:45:42 PM

And a national DNA database, too. I'm sure libertarian types would howl at this potential intrusion into our privacy, but I can't make up a scenario where a DNA database compromises us. Essay contest for potential howlers: give me a concrete example of how the government could use our DNA info to take us over.

The one exception is healthcare. If the insurance companies got the information, they would denigh coverage to everyone who has a possible hereditary condition. But a simple solution exists: a single payer system. In fact, a DNA database demands a single payer system. One more reason to push for a DNA database.

Posted by: James of DC | Aug 8, 2004 12:11:18 AM

FYI - if you are really interested in this issue, the Electronic Privacy Resource Center has a great collection of information on national id cards, including legislation in progress and policy analysis.

Posted by: Shaula Evans | Aug 8, 2004 3:21:35 AM

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