National ID Cards: A Threat to Liberty?

Stephen H. Unger

June, 22, 2010

Serious proposals for issuing national identity cards (NICs) to all Americans have been made recently, stimulated largely by the need to do something effective about illegal immigration [Unger1, Unger2]. This has outraged people all over the political and social spectrum. What reasons are given for this outrage, and do they make sense? But first, what good might NICs do?

Why Have Identity Cards?

Most of us nowadays carry a wallet full of cards needed to identify ourselves in various situations. Occasions requiring production of such cards include traffic stops, doctor visits, cashing a check, boarding an airliner, crossing a national border, borrowing library books, voting. In most, perhaps all, these cases, the requirement to show ID seems reasonable.

Consider now the matter of controlling immigration to our country. Because of the extensive borders and coastline of the US, monitoring entry via border and port controls is very difficult. It is worth making a reasonable effort, since this can impede the inflow of illegal immigrants to a significant extent. But the difficulty of evading such barriers is not all that great. Furthermore, many illegals gain initial entry via some sort of temporary visa and then simply remain here. One way or another, there are now roughly 11 million illegals in the US [Watanabe]. (The number fell recently as a consequence of the economic hard times we are experiencing. Perhaps we should consider collapsing our economy further to reduce illegal immigration even more!)

It seems obvious that those already here illegally could not be found and deported unless there is some way to distinguish them from legal residents and visitors. How else could the law against hiring illegals be enforced? A system called E-Verify is currently used by some employers to access a data base for the purpose of determining the status of job applicants. Due to failures to detect fraudulent ID, it has been reported to do a poor job of identifying illegals [Judicial Watch]. Appropriate NICs that incorporate either identifying information or links to a database with such information would serve this purpose.

Such a card could also be used to verify the identity of voters on election day, thereby reducing the likelihood of multiple voting or some other infractions of voting laws. It might also serve other purposes such as identification related to medical insurance. So why are so many people horrified by the NIC concept?

Would NICs Convert the US to a Totalitarian Country?

"The card is a gateway to East German-style monitoring of individuals' personal lives. Every act would be subject to governmental scrutiny." [Raynor]. This statement is representative of a major segment of the opposition to NICs.

The implicit underlying argument is that NICs have been a useful part of the oppressive apparatus of the worst dictatorships of the twentieth century and are therefore a serious menace to our liberty. It is easy to see how updated versions could be used by big brother. No question that identity papers are strongly associated with totalitarian governments of every kind. This accounts for much of the heated opposition to the NIC idea, particularly from those who have lived under oppressive regimes. More precise anti-NIC arguments have been made, particularly by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) [ACLU].

The ACLU points include:

  • The information included on or linked to the IDs would inevitably contain errors for some individuals. The need for information updating would lead to more errors. Some of these could make trouble for them until corrected.
  • A national identity card would foster new forms of discrimination and harassment of anyone perceived as looking or sounding "foreign". The stigma and humiliation of constantly having to prove that they are Americans or legal immigrants would weigh heavily on such groups.
  • Law enforcement and other government agencies would soon ask to link into it, while employers, landlords, credit agencies, mortgage brokers, direct mailers, landlords, private investigators, civil litigants, and a long list of other parties would begin seeking access, further eroding the privacy that Americans have always expected in their personal lives.

    These are serious concerns. Let's examine them. One general characteristic shared by all of them is that the problems mentioned already exist. Certainly errors are made in connection with drivers licenses and driving records, and with respect to other existing identity cards. We seem to be able to tolerate the associated inconveniences. If error rates were not drastically higher with NICs, and I don't see why they would be, there is no obvious reason why they would create an intolerable situation.

    Harassment by police or federal agents of people who appear to be foreign is possible with or without NICs. One might even argue that having an NIC would reduce excuses for harassment by immediately settling the issue of whether an individual is an American with minimal fuss. The existence of NICs does not in itself require people to "constantly prove they are Americans or legal immigrants". Having a drivers license does not mean that I am constantly asked to show it to police officers. Rules must be established that balance reasonable law enforcement efforts against inconvenience visited on law abiding people. If, in some area, 10,000 people are asked to show ID for every illegal immigrant found in this manner, then there is a problem with the behavior of law enforcement officers in that area and procedural corrections should be made. Furthermore, there could and should be mechanisms to ensure that officers checking IDs treat all involved courteously.

    One factor affecting the extent to which NICs would infringe on privacy is the amount and nature of the data associated with the cards and whether the data is stored on the cards or in a central data base accessible via numbers stored on the cards. If cards are solely for establishing citizenship and for voting purposes, then the associated information need only be the name, address, gender, and age of the person, along with some sort of biometric information for identification purposes. This might be a photograph along with a fingerprint, or perhaps an iris pattern [Wikipedia].

    It is hard to see how such information constitutes a novel violation of privacy. Note that photo IDs are common in a variety of contexts (such as in work places or club memberships). At first, the idea of having our fingerprints recorded sounds very intrusive. But I can't think of any substantial reason why having a fingerprint on record should be any more of a problem than a photograph. My guess is that we may resent being fingerprinted because this process is strongly associated with being arrested. (Then there is the problem of cleaning our fingers afterward!)

    Another of the above listed concerns expressed by the ACLU is that, over time, not only different government agencies, but even private individuals and companies would try to access information associated with the NICs. This problem can be addressed by simply denying such access where it is not deemed appropriate. It is not clear just what kind of private information would become vulnerable that is already not relatively easy to obtain from existing data bases. Via our checking and credit card accounts, income tax returns, EZ pass, medical insurance records, school records, and so on, compiling dossiers on Americans today is a routine operation for government agents and not much harder for private investigators.

    The more general fear, expressed in the quotes at the beginning of this section, is based on the association of identity cards with dictatorships. It is understandable, but not really logical. The fact that fascist and communist governments required people to carry identity cards is not in itself evidence that such cards are terrible things. The Nazis were big on outdoor activities, hiking, etc., and promoted them via their Hitler Youth organization. Does that mean that we ought to be concerned about high school hiking clubs?

    The important question is not whether an actual or virtual NIC requirement is a feature of totalitarian rule, but rather whether such a requirement would be a step toward establishing such rule. Experience with modern European democracies, such as Denmark or the Netherlands, which have such cards, does not suggest such a tendency.

    Summing Up

    Many poor people do not have documents such as drivers licenses, birth certificates, social security cards. This is a problem for them now, e.g., with respect to voting and health care. An NIC law should have provisions for facilitating the issuing of cards to such people without penalizing them.

    Much of the opposition to the NIC is based on the argument that it would be a useful tool for an undemocratic government. This is true, but, by the same reasoning, one could argue that police forces and prisons should be abolished because they could obviously be used by a dictatorship to crush dissent. Unfortunately, many who passionately oppose the NIC because they think it might lead to serious abuses of privacy and liberty do not seem to be upset by actual ongoing assaults on the Bill of Rights such as warrantless eavesdropping on the communications of Americans [Kravets], violations of habeas corpus [Theisen], and even the targeting of a US citizen for assassination by our government [Greenwald].

    I may be missing something here, but, as a lifelong, strong supporter of civil liberties, I just don't see how NICs are an inherent threat. A reasonable way to address the problem of harmful uses of NICs is to identify such uses and ensure that they are not permitted. On the other hand, opponents of the NIC should be asked to suggest ways to enforce immigration laws effectively without NICs. I believe that a segment of opposition to NICs are people who don't want such laws enforced and would like to see our borders opened to all. It is interesting that Mexico is in the process of distributing sophisticated NICs to its citizens [Secure].

    Altho some supporters of NICs argue that they would be useful in combatting terrorists, I believe they would contribute very little in that regard. A competent terrorist group would, I am sure, be able to obtain cards. Those unable to do this would probably not be effective in other ways.

    I also don't see NICs changing the picture very much with respect to identity theft. Existing ID documents such as drivers licenses, social security cards and birth certificates are sometimes forged, and I assume that this would not change much with the NIC. Using more sophisticated technology would make forgery more difficult, but if the cards had more uses, it would make forgery more profitable. No technological innovation could eliminate the possibility of fraudulent ID cards, since the cards must be issued initially on the basis of documents such as birth certificates, which themselves might be fraudulent. So a reasonably well administered NIC system could have a substantial impact in reducing the number of illegal immigrants, or the number of multiple voters, but could not be expected to be 100% effective.


    ACLU, "5 Problems with National ID Cards",, September 8, 2003

    Glenn Greenwald, "Confirmed: Obama authorizes assassination of U.S. citizen", Salon, Apr 7, 2010

    David Kravets, "Courts, Congress Shun Addressing Legality of Warrantless Eavesdropping", Wired, January 29, 2010

    Judicial Watch, "Illegal Immigrants Beat E-Verify With Stolen IDs", Judicial Watch, 2/26/2010

    Austin Raynor, "National ID and Personal Privacy", The Libertarian Solution, April 7, 2010

    Secure ID News, "Mexico taps Unisys for national ID", Secure ID News, February 4, 2010

    Kenneth J. Theisen, "The End Of Habeas Corpus: This Is "Justice" In Obama's America", Countercurrents, 25 May, 2010

    Unger1"The Immigration Struggle: Defending Arizona", Ends and Means, May 16, 2010,

    Unger2, "Immigration: Who wins? Who Loses?", Ends and Means, February 27, 2010

    Teresa Watanabe, "Illegal immigrant population in U.S. plummets, according to a new report", Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2010

    Wikipedia"Iris recognition", Wikipedia, May 19, 2010

    Comments can be emailed to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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