“If you don’t have anything to hide, it’s not a problem.”
“It’ll help stop terrorism and illegal immigration.”
If you hold either of those views about national ID, for the sake of your own future I hope you’ll reconsider.
“Sure it’s obnoxious. But get real; we already have a national ID system. It’s called our driver’s license. Or Social Security. What they’re talking about now is just a technical refinement.”
If you hold that view, you’re right -- as far as it goes. But things are going to go a lot farther.
If we accept national ID, we’ll all have a problem. We won’t be one bit safer from violence. And we will have crossed a crucial line that forever divides the free from the unfree.
What they’re proposing
National ID isn’t a new idea. American politicians and bureaucrats have been proposing it since the Great Depression. “Infallible” national ID has been proposed over the years as a means of fighting communism, illegal immigration, crime, census undercounting, terrorism, welfare fraud, and a variety of other disasters du jour.
Until now, Americans have always said no to being forced to show “Your papers, please!” on demand. But since the catastrophe of September 11, polls say as many as 87 percent of us may be willing to submit to a nationwide, biometric ID system.
Larry Ellison, CEO of the giant database company Oracle, has been the chief cheerleader for the proposed system, which would require us to carry a card containing a scannable “smart chip,” and would identify us through a combination of our Social Security number, fingerprint, and retinal pattern or facial-recognition scan (this is called biometrics -- measuring of our biological characteristics). Ellison admits that from its inception the accompanying federal ID database would give government agencies, and anyone else with access, instant information on our “places of work, amounts and sources of income, assets, purchases, travel destinations, and more.”
President Bush is reported as not favoring national ID. But statements coming out of the White House have been non-committal -- of the “we‘re keeping all options open“ variety. Dozens of high-level government officials, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Attorney General John Ashcroft, do favor the scheme.
At first the cards wouldn’t be mandatory -- at least not in Ellison‘s plan. But even in the “voluntary” system, anyone who “chose” not to present a national ID card and submit to biometric scans on demand would be subject to invasive body searches at airports and extensive, humiliating, time-consuming questioning at checkpoints about his identity, plans, motives, and activities. Everyone without approved ID would, in short, be treated as a criminal suspect.
If the system became legally mandatory, those refusing to cooperate could also be arrested, jailed and fined.
There‘s an alternative plan in the works. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) has been striving for years to get biometric national ID implemented by stealth -- by having states, under federal mandate, convert their own IDs and drivers licenses to biometric form, then linking all 50 state databases into a nationwide system. They have partially succeeded by getting congressional leaders to plant small, hidden “land-mines” in large bills passed by Congress since 1996.
The AAMVA announced in November 2001 that it was “working closely” with the new Office of Homeland Security to implement a mandatory biometric system through state licensing agencies. And this system would be mandatory.
Why is this a problem?
Well, so what? The United States isn’t Nazi Germany -- which used a computerized national ID system to round up Jews and other “undesirables” and send them to slave labor and death. (This “civilized” bureaucratic process behind the Nazi slaughter is icily documented in Edwin Black’s 2000 book, IBM and the Holocaust.) So what’s the big deal?
The very big deal is “mission creep.”
When Social Security numbers were introduced in the 1930s, the system was “voluntary.” Citizens who worried about the biblical number of the Beast (Rev. 13: 16-18) or more mundane forms of tyranny were assured that, by law, the number would never -- ever -- be used for ID.
In the tradition of nearly every limited, temporary, or voluntary government program our Social Security number eventually became our universal identifier. No law requires you to get a Social Security number, even today. But try functioning in the everyday world of work, banking, credit, schooling, home-buying, or even video rental without one.
If national ID becomes U.S. law, five years from now you won’t be able to do any of these things without submitting to various biometric scans. But that’s barely the beginning.
The new, more high-tech national ID system would enable the federal government and its contractors to follow and electronically analyze your activities in real-time -- to pinpoint your location, check your purchases, view records of your medical condition, and monitor your bank deposits and withdrawals as you make them, for instance. Worse yet, it ultimately gives government the ability to control your activities -- to (accidentally or deliberately) freeze your bank account, shut down your credit cards, deny you access to public transportation, forbid you entry into such public places as county courthouses, deny you health care, even deny you entrance to your job once your employer has (in the name of standardization, and possibly with the spur of federal subsidies or regulations) adopted the federal system. All at the click of a computer key, somewhere in Washington, D.C.
Does this sound too much like something out of the movie “Enemy of the State”?
But remember, you’re dealing with a federal government that already forbids professional licenses, drivers licenses, and even fishing licenses not to known terrorists, criminals, or illegals -- but to ordinary parents who get behind in child support. Just think what it could do to with the instant ability to monitor and cut off access to transportation or services for a variety of disobedient or “questionable“ people.
It could happen to you if you’re a “deadbeat dad,” if you’ve neglected some traffic tickets, if you fit the “profile” of a drug user or a gun owner, if you’ve stated too many controversial opinions on the Internet, if your activities appear “suspicious” by any mysterious standard, if you’ve made political enemies -- or even if there’s a glitch in the system. And have you ever tried to straighten out even a little glitch with a government agency? Good luck to you.
This is still only the beginning. Shortly (after too many people have misplaced their cards, and too many criminals continued to get useable ID), the card-borne “smart chip” would be replaced by an implanted chip -- one of which, Digital Angel, is already on the market. Periodic scanning could then be augmented by 24-hour-a-day, satellite-based tracking. People in the U.S. will be watched and controlled far more thoroughly than Winston Smith was controlled by Big Brother in 1984 -- and for the very same reasons; to impose some social manager’s ideal of order.
The second big deal is self-ownership.
Maybe you don’t believe the scenario I just spelled out. You know the U.S. government is judicious and benevolent, and that it would only monitor, not control us.
Before you say, “It’s no problem if you have nothing to hide,” consider this:
If you catch your neighbor peeking through a knothole in the fence, you’re offended -- even if your neighbor merely sees you drinking a glass of iced tea. If you came home and found that same neighbor going through your bank statements, credit card records, school transcripts, medical records, and travel itineraries in your desk, you’d be livid, and you’d probably call the cops -- again, even if your financial and personal life was pure as new snow. Why? Because your neighbor has stepped over a line; he has violated the psychic and physical territory that belongs only to you.
Where did the government acquire the authority to freely inspect your life? What legitimate law enforcement or security purpose is served by surveiling the innocent?
The question isn’t what do you have to hide but why is the government so persistently determined to find out everything about you.
The third big deal is that national ID violates your rights
When you have to prove your identity to government agents on demand, you’re being treated as a criminal -- and your Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights are being trashed.
When you have to produce identity papers on demand, you’re being searched illegally. If you’re “detained” until you prove your identity, you’re being seized illegally. Both are violations of the Fourth Amendment.
If you must give information that could get you prosecuted (for instance, the information that you’re not carrying your national ID), you’re being forced to provide evidence against yourself -- a Fifth Amendment violation.
If your religion forbids universal numbering, your First Amendment rights are being broken by national ID.
And by extending its authority into areas forbidden to it by the Constitution, the federal government violates the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.
Is it worth it to you, to gain national ID and lose all these historic protections?
Worse. Your loss of freedom won’t do anything to make you safe
Random surveillance may help criminals and terrorists.
Even before the September 11 attacks, commentators such as Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum and former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht had warned that reliance on mass electronic surveillance and neglect of hard, culturally aware field work, was causing U.S. intelligence agencies to overlook years of extensive planning by terrorists.
Mass surveillance catches the unwary -- ordinary people who may engage in unpopular political activities, have innocently “suspicious” patterns of behavior, or who accidentally violate obscure technical provisions of law. Mass surveillance might also catch petty larcenous (and not very bright) criminals. But serious criminals -- and that includes international terrorists -- take precautions against random spying. Thus, they get away with planning murder while the National Security Agency is overloaded, scanning your e-mails for “dangerous” words and while the FBI’s Carnivore gobbles up millions of useless records of worldwide Web surfing habits.
National ID -- with its on-the-spot links to vast databases of material covering your financial activities, skills, travels, and interests -- is simply more of the same, only with faster, more detailed, more widespread reporting. It targets YOU without protecting you from them.
Criminals, terrorists, and illegal immigrants will still get useable fake ID.
We’re supposed to believe that when we present that card and subject ourselves to the accompanying biometric scans, we’re proving beyond all doubt that we’re who we say we are.
Well, we’re not doing that.
And even if we were, so what?
Anybody who wants it badly enough and is able to pay the price will still get fake ID -- even biometric national ID.
Want proof? When the AAMVA succeeded in getting its last round of “foolproof” ID imposed via state drivers licensing agencies in the mid-1990s, an entire industry developed in which employees of government licensing agencies sold “real” ID to illegal immigrants and criminals -- complete with scannable, verifiable database entries, real fingerprints, real digitized photos, and plausible but non-existent Social Security numbers.
Social Security employees have also been caught selling “real” SSNs, complete with “real” database entries, to illegal immigrants, including at least one terrorism suspect.
Exactly that same thing will happen with any ID system -- no matter how sophisticated or allegedly secure it is. (Naturally fake ID will always be available. How do you think the CIA, FBI, DEA, IRS, et al. manage to provide “cover” identities for their secret agents? Well-heeled criminals will simply imitate the methods originated by government intelligence agencies.)
Terrorists will still get genuine ID.
Thousands of foreign agents (and potential suicide attackers) will continue to get real U.S. ID -- as at least 13 of the 19 September 11 hijackers did. A well-funded terrorist organization or foreign government with long-term plans to harm the U.S. would simply insert into this country, entirely “clean” agents -- idealistic students, legitimate contractors or diplomats, all with unobjectionable records -- who would be fully qualified to obtain genuine U.S. national ID. Once possessing “foolproof” biometric ID, such people would lay low, live their lives peaceably, and pass any ID scan -- until the day they set off their backpack nukes or released their smallpox infections upon the populace.
National ID? It won’t stop a determined enemy for a moment. But future failures of the “foolproof” national ID system will be the justification for the implanted subcutaneous chip and perpetual satellite tracking -- which in turn will be compromised by criminals, terrorists, and rogue governments.
Violence will actually increase.
One day, Americans will wake up to discover that all their freedoms have been destroyed in the name of “saving freedom.” They’re going to be furious.
But by then national ID and all its noxious consequences will be firmly entrenched. No pragmatic Congress is going to repeal them. No chronically insecure security agency is going to give up its newfound centralized control. No giant corporation is going to say, “Oh, we’ll gladly dismantle our multi-billion-dollar money-making surveillance systems.”
After all, if it took decades to get rid of our National Tea Tasting Board even after Richard Nixon singled it out and ridiculed it in the national media as an example of stupid government waste, who's going to get rid of anything as "useful" to bureaucrats, enforcers, statisticians, and social managers as national ID -- even if it's completely ineffective in making us safe?
Eventually, frustrated, fed-up, angry Americans will strike back -- violently and with the fury of people who have nothing left to lose. And they, too, can do that while bearing their nationalized identities -- real or fake -- when they are serious and desperate enough.
Why it’s going to be so hard to draw the line
How do we stop this? There are too few influential people listening and too many actively on the other side.
In all probability, the ID system will be imposed gradually -- either one state at a time under quiet federal mandate, or nationally but “voluntarily.”
That way, Congresspeople can more easily say, “National ID? Don’t be silly; we don’t have national ID! We’re just ’enhancing identity protection’ to make America safe.”
And millions of Americans will simply yawn and change the channel.
There’s a broad, indefinite line that separates a free nation from a police state. On one side of that line, the people control the government. On the other, the government controls the people. We’ve been veering toward that line and into it for decades now. But with national ID we’ll have crossed it decisively.
So what do you do about it?
Freedom lovers labor under a handicap. We are almost unfailingly burdened with a sense of civic responsibility that -- given the ruthlessness and machinations of our opponents -- is laughable. We practice the methods of American Government 101 -- polite letters to uncaring congresspeople, labors wasted on the campaigns of craven oath breakers -- while they vote at midnight for bills they haven’t read and trade our freedom for the momentary pleasure and power of the deal. Faceless bureaucrats write the laws, implement, interpret, and enforce them while elected officials posture, preen, and pretend to be the representatives they long ago ceased to be.
Believing we can politely influence such power seekers is rather like believing we can reason with men who fly airplanes into buildings.
But what’s the alternative?
Certainly, we must educate ourselves and anyone else who will listen that national ID is a problem, and potentially the most dangerous one Americans will ever face. We need numbers, informed brains, and determined spirits.
We must still try to tell our soi dissant leaders that we forbid national ID. The way to do this is not to beg them or our freedom, but to warn them of the consequences of stealing our freedom. To whatever extent we communicate with our alleged representatives (and it’s best to do this in public forums and in the media, where others who care might hear), we should make it absolutely clear that this is a line-in-the-sand issue -- that we won’t tolerate the standard political trickery or typical dodges (“Oh, goodness, I had no idea that was hidden in that must-pass appropriations bill.”) First, we must warn them that any vote for national ID is a vote that could get them thrown out of office, regardless of anything else in their record. (Then we have to back that, which is the hard part.) We must make it clear -- in a responsible way -- that rebellion and resistance will follow if national ID is imposed. Don’t make specific threats to commit illegal activity and don’t recommend specific illegal activities to others unless you’re willing to bear the legal consequences; focus in the abstract on American‘s historic refusal to accept tyranny.
Prepare to resist -- and prepare for the consequences of resistance. It will be the job of truly patriotic -- not just flag-waving patriotic -- Americans to break any national ID system thrust upon us.
If national ID and tracking is imposed, people who value freedom will need to ensure that the databases are full of such garbage that the system can’t function usefully and that the scanners are constantly non-operative. The more flamboyant among us will need to stage public confrontations (anything from sit-down strikes to surround the scanners, to wearing of Groucho glasses and chemical defacing of fingerprints, to playful acts of public-protest theater, as many groups now perform in front of streetside facial-recognition cameras).
Ultimately, millions will need to refuse to accept the card -- even if it means loss of jobs, travel restrictions, jail, or worse. Right now, few have that will. If enough understand the long-term consequences of national ID, we might -- it’s our only hope -- develop the courage that comes from understanding.
It isn’t nice. It isn’t safe. But if you want to see something really ugly and really dangerous -- stand by and give the federal government the means to control your daily life.
And have a nice 1984.
 Ellison, Larry. “Smart Cards: Digital IDs Can Help Prevent Terrorism.” WSJ.com Opinion Journal, Oct 18, 2001. (Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Octr 8, 2001) Found at www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=95001336.
 See Pipes, Daniel. “Mistakes Made the Catastrophe Possible.” Wall Street Journal, Sept 12, 2001. Found at www.interactive.wsj.com/articles/SB1000270817760286077.htm. And Gerecht, Reuel Marc. “The Counterterrorist Myth.” The Atlantic, Jul/Aug 2001. Found at www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/07/gerecht.htm.