National ID Cards: Driving Toward the United State of America

Jim Amrhein discusses National ID Cards — their proposed merits, why most of these merits don’t hold water, and how worrisome it is that not that many people seem to be concerned about the idea.

The United States has taken yet another step toward the equivalent of a national ID card.

According to a May 3 New York Times article, Congress is almost certain to soon pass legislation that elevates the state-issued driver’s license to what amounts to a national citizenship credential. Under the auspices of immigration control and national security concerns, the new law (HR 418, known as the Real ID Act) would all but standardize the heretofore state-specific licenses, make them more difficult to counterfeit, and attach a citizenship verification component to the licensing process. 

This idea is nothing new.

Even before 9/11, there were many who supported such a policy for immigration control, to make it harder for the underage to forge identifications for drinking purposes, or for other sane-sounding reasons. But after the Twin Towers came tumbling down on that darkest of days in the late summer 2001, many more Americans — now as many as seven out of 10, according to the Pew Research Center — have embraced the idea of such a nationalized ID.

This is in no small part because the current presidential administration has floated the idea as part of its broad anti-terrorism platform in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States isn’t alone, either — right now, the United Kingdom is inches from approving its own four-years-in-the-making national ID card plan. The esteemed London School of Economics recently released a paper outlining the plan’s benefits, and the proposal enjoys strong support among the populace — as many as 85% of Brits would welcome the card as a security measure, according to one poll issued two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the United States, such plans aren’t the sole province of conservatives, either — even though the media seemingly love to portray it that way. Many an elected Democrat has voiced the need for some sort of nationalized ID. In fact, former majority leader and 2004 presidential candidate Dick Gephardt (D-Mo., retired) was one of the most aggressive proponents of a national ID card system in the weeks following the World Trade Center attacks.

But enough of the party politics who struck John. The bottom line is that a nationalized ID system is now on the table in one form or another — and, for all intents and purposes, may soon be a reality under the Stars and Stripes…

Suspending for a moment the likely knee-jerk reactions (including my own) on both poles of this issue — the fatigued “Big Brother” argument of the privacy piranhas and the ruthlessly pragmatic “national-security-trumps-all” angle of the uberpatriots — the real question is is a national ID card (in any form) a good thing or not?

 National ID Cards: Us and Them = a More Perfect Union?

The idea of a U.S. national ID is not without some practical merit in the eyes of a majority of people in America. Many have argued that if a citizens-only identification existed — and the law of the land were such that only those who held such an ID could legally work or collect benefits in this country — many of the most attractive features of the “land of the free” to illegal (pardon me, “undocumented”) immigrants would evaporate, along with many of our border security issues.

If this seems to you an overblown statement, consider this: In 11 states, it’s perfectly legal for undocumented immigrants (who aren’t always even insurable as drivers) to obtain driver’s licenses. Even Medicaid, worker’s compensation and other public benefits are available to large numbers of illegals, depending on what state they’re standing in. In fact, federal law (1986’s Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act) currently mandates limitless ER treatment for undocumented immigrants — without penalty or prosecution for their noncitizen status. Unless someone develops a serious illness that requires long-term care, this policy grants what amounts to free lifetime medical care!

Proponents of a nationalized ID system as a prerequisite for jobs, insurance, driver’s licenses, and public benefits quite rightly argue that the net effect of such a measure would be to significantly bolster our anemic, run-amok immigration policy — providing a powerful disincentive for illegal immigration, plus all but eliminating the fiscal burden that the payment of many illegals’ benefits saddles us with every year.

The flip side of this is that since a huge and ever-increasing segment of the U.S. work force — especially in service- and labor-intensive industries — is comprised of those living “outside the system,” such a federal law would put some pressure on certain businesses and, perhaps, the economy as a whole.  

But I digress; these are economic points. “National security” is the main thrust to the Real ID Act, if its authors are to be believed.

Citing the ease with which current state driver’s licenses can be either counterfeited or legally obtained by noncitizens (some of the Sept. 11 hijackers held legal driver’s licenses), the legislation will force states to require applicants to demonstrate their legal presence in the United States, verify a valid Social Security number, save copies of all documents of proof along with a digital photo, and cross-reference each applicant against a national immigration database. The driver’s license itself will also be beefed up with higher-tech encryption and authentication features.

How will all of this increase national security?

I’m not exactly sure, but the bill’s proponents assure us that it will. About the only way I can see that the measure MIGHT have an impact is in hindering a low-tech approach to terrorism — one that relies on a forged driver’s license to board a plane, buy explosives, or whatever. Long-term, well-funded, and organized actions are likely not to be stopped by HR 418, in my opinion. If terrorists are dedicated enough to do it the way they did on Sept. 11, they’ll simply take the next step and actually become U.S. citizens or obtain valid visas before dealing us another killer blow. After all, no national ID card can show what’s in the heart…

Scary, but true.

national ID Cards: Citizen’s Bane

As hard to swallow as it may be for some, what any kind of national ID card will inevitably lead to — be it a new standardized driver’s license or some other credential that ties a person’s every action to his citizenship — is an even easier way for the feds to invade and analyze the lives, travels, readings, purchases, and medical histories of U.S. citizens, 99.99% of whom are completely innocent of anything even resembling a threat to national security. And the feds are already holding onto far too much information about us as it is…

Think I’m joking?

According to a recent Associated Press article, if you’re one of the more than 257 million Americans who flew on a commercial airline flight between January and September 2001, the FBI knows about it — and also likely knows where you stayed, what you ate, whether you rented a car or not, what you bought, where you visited, and what credit cards or other forms of payment you used. This from more than 250 million records it’s scavenged from airlines, credit card companies, and other sources — some of them requiring grand jury subpoenas. The FBI is holding onto these records in its permanent investigative database.

That’s right: The woman you chatted up online and flew to Seattle to meet in March 2001? The FBI almost certainly knows who she is, what the two of you ate at that smelly sushi joint, and in what hotel the two of you spent that one disastrous night…

Worried about the $400 you dropped for “services rendered” at the Midnight Bunny Ranch outside Vegas in May that year? That’s on your permanent record, for sure…

That embarrassing hemorrhoid procedure you underwent later in the summer? A bunch of FBI computer geeks are chuckling over that right now, no doubt…

What about that trip to the Holy Land you took over Labor Day week in ’01? That’ll be in some database forever, with a big fat asterisk next to it, most likely…

And the Glock 37 you bought for the nightstand the week after the attacks? The feebs are all over that transaction, my friend…

Now, imagine the extent of the information the feds will be able to gather with a national ID card that gets presented (and likely scanned and recorded) before every flight you take, every purchase you make with anything but cash, every time you go into a bar or movie, every time you buy or borrow a book, every time you have a wart removed, and every time you take cash out of a bank machine. This is where we’re headed, friends. Not only a state of constant surveillance (like I’ve written about before), but a state of near-total monitoring and analysis of every aspect of your life — and all for the stated purpose of detecting trends in spending or movements that could be interpreted as threats.

And what about when these ID cards are equipped with RFID (radio frequency identification) chips? This technology is already being used to track livestock, retail goods — it has even been tried on schoolchildren in at least one American town. These devices can be read over a distance of 30 feet or more…

Will we soon see interactive wall ads at the mall that detect our RFID cards and talk directly to us, like in Philip K. Dick’s chilling Minority Report?

I read recently about one grain-of-rice-sized, under-skin-implantable RFID device called the VeriChip — FDA approved for U.S. use last October. Marketed as a lifesaving device (hospitals with VeriChip readers could access an unconscious patient’s medical history in seconds), VeriChip readers are apparently increasingly used in the more fashionable clubs in Europe and Brazil to run up drink tabs!

Will we soon be IMPLANTED with our national ID devices so we have no option of leaving them at home?

National ID Cards: ID, FBI, RFID, Acronyms for a New Age

What’s really scary about all of this is that it seems like no one outside of what’s popularly considered the lunatic fringe of the far right is even talking about the serious abrogation of personal freedom and privacy or the blatant unconstitutionality any kind of governmental monitoring of citizens without just cause or reasonable suspicion of guilt constitutes. This includes national ID cards, RFID capable or not…

In the simplest terms: Constant monitoring of individuals in order to have proof in CASE they do something illegal isn’t what the Framers had in mind, I’m sure. 

Whether you’re a politician, an editorialist, a water cooler political pundit, or just a conscientious voter, it’s easy to wet a finger, test the winds of public opinion, and blindly endorse or accept what an overwhelming majority of your fellow citizens already claim they want — like national ID cards, an easy sell, since the American public is already used to forking over their Social Security numbers (isn’t this enough of a national ID database?) for all kinds of transactions.

The problem is that when the government is involved, there’s often a huge difference between what we want and what we get. What we want is greater security from bomb-detonating maniacs and stricter control over illegal immigration…

What we’re slowly but surely getting is a life on camera, on the record, and under a microscope.   

Surely flagged on some list by now (along with my readers — sorry),

Jim Amrhein, 
Contributing Editor
Whiskey & Gunpowder
May 10, 2005