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Terrorism Not Reason for Use of National Identification Cards

Terrorism Not Reason for Use of National Identification Cards

Carla Castellano
University of Wisconsin - Parkside

As a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks there has been renewed interest in the concept of national ID cards. While this idea is not at all a new, it is closer to becoming more of a reality than ever, gaining approval by key members of congress such as Rep. Mary Bono (R-Cal) and House Minority leader Richard Gepharrdt (D-Mo). [1] Immediately following the attacks of September 11th,Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle declared his support for the use of national ID cards saying "We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumb print digitized and embedded in the ID card."[1] Ellison showed his strong support of the ID system by offering the software for the project free of charge. Currently the Bush Administration objects to this renewed idea, however due to heightened emotion from the recent terrorist attacks the nation is closer to the idea than ever before.

Americans must be aware of the dangers implied by the implementation of national ID cards and of the long-term effects of such centralized information system. The goal of this paper is to convince the reader why a national ID card system is a bad idea, particularly when created for war-fighting purposes.

What does a national identification system entail? A national ID card contains information that is different from the type of information already in place in that it is a potential merging of all records for an individual in addition to some sort of biometric technology that could include digital fingerprints, handprint scans, facial recognition technologies, and electronic retinal scans.[1] The concept of a national id cards has been proposed as a solution to many other issues including Social Security reform, gun control, immigration, and health care.

A supporter of national identification cards, Rep. Mary Bono argues that "When we consider ourselves to be at war, people are going to have to recognize that some of their freedoms are gone."[1] This argument and similar ones declaring the need for such a large loss of privacy are problematic and do not accurately portray the reasons for a national id card system implementation. The idea behind the use of NID cards as a means of putting a stop to terrorist acts is problematic for the following reasons:

    • Hasty reaction to heighten war-time emotions could result in future regret
    • The system would not solve the real problem while dramatically increasing governmental power
    • The system would not go away after wartime. Instead its use and power would be continuously increased, as the right to privacy would decrease.

Implementation of national ID cards as a war tactic against terrorism is a quick fix that clearly violates the individual’s basic rights. Many people argue that the loss of privacy is necessary in times of war. In some ways, this may be true. Should the government be allowed to monitor emails in the investigation of the September 11th attacks? While this may clearly be an invasion of privacy the long term and side effects are small. The loss of email privacy is a fair trade off for increased security and justice in the time of war. But a national identification system is by far not a fair trade off. Email monitoring is short-term and specific while the other is long-term with potential negative long-term effects on many aspects of every American life. A result of something such as email monitoring means that your email has the potential of being read and most likely disregarded. On the other hand, the NID card system means your personal information will be centralized and available to the government with ease. Not only are the privacy invasion implications serious but the idea of having to give up so many of the basic rights guaranteed to American citizens is problematic. Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) makes an important point. "This does not mean that we can allow terrorists to alter the fundamental openness of U.S. society or the government’s respect for civil liberties. If we do so, they will have won."[7]

Making quick decisions during moments of national crisis is visible in U.S. history. Yet some of these decisions are looked on with remorse, regret or even disbelief. One example is the events of World War II when Japanese immigrants and their children were put into camps after Pearl Harbor. "While the first responsibility of government is to protect our lives and property, we shouldn’t rush into giving up some of our freedoms unnecessarily. We need thing that actually matter, not just symbolic gestures. Instead of providing such meaningful solution, national ID cards will become, at a minimum, an unnecessary nuisance for most citizens."[1] A NID card system has huge implications to the American life and hasty decisions brought on by war should not be the deciding factor in such a profound issue.

An NID card would not necessarily be capable of solving the real problem. The IDs would ideally keep terrorists out of the country. Yet, nearly all of the terrorists who directly participated in the attacks were residing in the United States legally.[4] For further illustration consider the issue of illegal immigration. In 1995 NID card proposals were considered as a possible solution to illegal immigration. Yet "many employers hire illegal aliens even though they know they are breaking the law. There is no reason to believe they will suddenly start to comply with federal laws regarding national identification."[3] Consider the possible improvements of regulations; people running regulations not the regulations themselves should be improved. In addition, a national registry system is prone to error and fraud. Bureaucrats could be bribed or forced into giving away information or producing fake IDs. Hackers could invade central databases to change or steal personal information.[1] Both human integrity and the possibility of human error play a much bigger role in finding the solution of the problem than the system itself. Jonathan S. Shapiro, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University points out that airport security guards and other officials " think they are relying on the cards when in fact they are relying on the integrity of the human process by which the cards are issued."[1]

For those who are convinced that a NID card system is perfectly legitimate in times of war the fact must face the fact that such as system would have many intentions aside from efforts against terrorism. Suppose the war on terrorism lasts a couple of years. Will the NID cards disappear since war has ended? Of course not. The system will have become a staple in the American life. A national identification card system would cost a lot of money and time to put together and would not suddenly be thrown away. This observation also supports the previous point in that the decision for adopting NID cards would be hasty because there would be long-tem effects, in fact a permanent change in civil liberties. The fact is, the system would involve much more than just anti-terrorism efforts. A NID system would be found useful for many purposes. As mentioned before, the idea has already been suggested as a solution to illegal immigration meaning that every future employee must have government approval to be employed. The Clinton Administration also brought up the idea of a smart card for national health care. A NID card system created for one purpose could easily be used for many other purposes.

The negative potential of identity cards is frightening. "Just as the original restrictions on the use of the Social Security card have been all but eliminated, limits on a national I.D. number or card would be ignored or legislated away. There would be an irresistible temptation to use the data for purposes for which it was never intended, including government surveillance."[5] Almost all ID cards worldwide have developed a broader usage over time than what was originally envisioned. If the U.S. follows the patterns of the rest of world who have identity card systems the card would be necessary for government benefits, dealings with financial institutions, employment or rental accommodations and obtaining documents. In Australia the card has been referred to as a license to live.[2]

Another misleading aspect of the system is the claim that a NID card would be mandatory. "That is, if you never plan to get a job, vote, travel, cash a check, open a bank account, go to the hospital, enroll in a public school, receive Medicare or other federal benefits, purchase insurance, or buy a gun, there’ll be no real need to comply."[6] Clearly, while not required, the cards would become necessary in order to live life normally.

A national identification card system itself has many problems. When the threat of implementing the system is brought up as a result of war the issue becomes critical. People are much more likely to ignore the problematic issues when there is emotion over the war. The desire for a "quick fix" to a much deeper problem will cause great harm to the American way of life.


  1. National ID Cards: New Technologies, Same Bad Idea by Adam Thierer
  2. Identity Cards Frequently Asked Questions
  3. A National ID System Big Brothers Solution to Illegal Immigration by John J Miller and Stephen Moore
  4. National ID Card Push Roils Privacy Advocates by Brian Krebs
  5. National Identification Cards "Why Does the ACLU Oppose a National I.D. Card System"
  6. National ID Cards
  7. Why Liberty Suffers In Wartime by Declan McCullagh,1283,47051-2,00.html

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