It's time the U.S. grows up and gets an ID card


Republic columnist
Oct. 5, 2005 12:00 AM

There is a flurry of activity about making identification documents more reliable and secure:

All the major immigration reform proposals include a new, less easily forged Social Security card.

Congress recently passed new requirements for state driver's licenses, including verifying the legal status of recipients.

An election reform commission headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker recommends using the new state driver's licenses for voter identification, including tracking Social Security numbers on a nationwide basis to avoid duplicate registrations. Those without a driver's license would be given a voter ID card subject to the same verifications.

All of these proposals dance around the central issue: It's time for a grown-up discussion about a national ID card in the United States.

In the modern era, there is a continuous need to establish that we are who we say we are. There is also a need to guard against others making false claims to be us.

After 9/11, there is also a security imperative to making sure that those who are here have a legal right to be here and are doing what they are legally entitled to do while here. If our immigration laws had been enforced, most of the hijackers either never would have gotten into the country or would have already left.

The United States already has the practical equivalent of a national ID card. Americans frequently have to show their driver's license or reveal their Social Security number to do a variety of things. But these documents were never intended to be a secure way of establishing one's identity and are, at present, easily forged or falsified. Hence the various proposals to make them more secure and informative.

But if it is important and necessary to be able to establish one's identity frequently, why not have a single document designed to do precisely that, and to do it well?

There are two primary objections to a national ID card. The first is that it leads inevitably to a police state.

But the existence of such a card does not a police state make, any more than requiring a Social Security number to work or a driver's license to use the roads have created a police state. There is nothing about a national ID card that dilutes the Fourth Amendment, which protects "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects" and against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

Whether to have such a document is a separable issue from that of when, and under what circumstances, government can compel its production or track its use.

The more serious objection is that a national ID card may further invade privacy. But government already has the information that would likely be part of a national ID card.

Various technological approaches are possible to make identification documents more reliable and more difficult to forge - a digital picture or a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint or retinal scan. That's certainly yielding some privacy to government. But they are already being proposed for Social Security cards, driver's licenses, passports and visas. Why not make them part of a more reliable and universal ID card?

To protect privacy, some suggest that national ID cards be limited to government purposes. But that makes no sense. We have a more frequent need to establish who we are outside of government. If there is a reliable document that does that, why limit its use?

The way to truly protect privacy is to give people an enforceable property right to personal information about themselves, including financial transactions and consumption patterns. Others would not be permitted to sell or exchange such information without permission.

The Blair government in Britain is pushing for a national ID card. The discussion is under way in Australia, France and Canada as well.

Yet, in the United States, we continue to nibble around the edges, trying to make a combination of other documents suffice.

It's time to get to the central issue. In the modern age, there's a continuous need to establish that we are who we say we are. There should be a reliable and secure document that does that.

Reach Robb at  or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.