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08/10/2004 Archived Entry: "ID cards"

In pondering what to use as blog material today, I realized that I should start posting some of the correspondence I receive -- with all identifiers stripped out, of course -- and my replies. The following exchange is from a high school student I met a few weeks ago who has paid me the compliment of considering me a resource. He writes...

Dear Mrs McElroy,

I will be attending Youth Parliament next week...a mock legislative event held every three to four years where each MP selects a young person to represent them for the two day event....The select committee I am on is debating the possible implementation of a universal identification card....Obviously with my libertarian views I am opposed to this. However I am finding it hard to come up with compelling arguments which are simultaneously succinct. So far I have the following; * If cards, why not implant computer chips at birth? * Cards would set a precedent for more intrusive measures, such as the above. Evidence can be seen in the fact that
pass-ports and driver's licences are being used as precedents for the current proposal. * Such cards would not stop crime in their own right. * They would shift the burden of proof onto the individual citizen having to prove their identity as apposed to the police proofing you are not who you say you are.

Obviously this is only a start. What arguments would you consider as the most relevant to such a debate? Could you recommend any resources I should look into?


Let me open by apologizing for the stream-of-consciousness style which is the manner in which I write when hurried. It blows a hole in succinctness, I'm afraid.

Like you, I am opposed to universal governmental ID, especially as such a system is inconceivable without mandatory enforcement and the punishment of those who commit no crime other than the created crime of refusing to carry government papers. Declining to put a piece of paper in your wallet must be the ultimate "victimless crime"...who is harmed?

The argument will come back: society is harmed because society -- to be safe -- must know who you are at every/any given moment. Just one objection the argument is that it is a slippery slope. What intrusion of privacy and individual rights can you *not* justify once you admit that principle. Why can't policemen break down your door at 2 a.m. in order to check that you are not being a menace to society? Why can't they put a 24-hour Orwell style camera into your home to make sure you're not manufacturing explosives? After all, if you don't have anything to hide, why would you object?

You would object because it is the right of every individual to lead his/her own life peacefully and without interference from third parties unless there is good reason to suspect criminal activity -- that is, violence against property or person. The requirement that a state (or third party) *must* provide cause before interfering with peaceful activities is one the bastions of freedom that prevents the rise of totalitarian government.

The demand for every citizen to provide ID at the snap of a government official's fingers reverses the logic of individual rights. It says that you are presumed guilty and must prove your innocence (that is, identify yourself with appropriate documents) or the presumption of guilt stands, and you will be punished for you non-identification. After all, if you have nothing to hide, why wouldn't you be carrying appropriate ID? The presumption of innocence is replaced by a presumption of guilt.

In the foregoing scenario, society has all the rights; individuals have all the responsibilities. Which makes you wonder where society got those rights if they did not first reside with individuals at some point. But this takes us into rights theory and, so, probably beyond what is useful for your immediate purpose.

Let me give you some practical objections to mandatory governmental IDs. They include:

1. There has been a steep rise in the systematic federal surveillance of ordinary citizens that foreshadows a state in which all information may be considered mandatory to reveal, to have listed in a database. Again, it is a slippery slide. Why not your medical records? Why not your sexual partners -- society has a right to know in case you are spreading a disease. And, after all, if you have nothing to hide, why would you object?

2. National ID or national registeries have been notoriously used by governments to oppose peaceful citizens. American used census and tax data to round up citizens of japanese descent into concentration camps in WWII. The Naziis used records to find Jews -- indeed, one of the reasons they were remarkably successful at this in Holland is because of the meticulous national records maintained which indicated religion. (See "Population Registers in the Netherlands During World War II" by Bob Moore) National ID has played a key role in various genocides. Should you wish to argue this point, there are many examples. So the gathering and maintaining of such data constitutes a threat to dissent, minorities, etc. Indeed, a new scandal is that the census bureau has turned over to Homeland Security the names and whereabouts of all Arab Americans...just to be safe. Census info was long sworn to be confidential.

3. Government IDs quickly become essential to everyday life. You've seen this with the airlines, which now demand a government photo-ID before boarding you. Thus, the government intrudes ever more deeply into every crevice of daily life: bank accounts, licenses of all varieties (fishing to practicing medicine), getting insurance or medical treatment, applying for jobs, etc. etc. It is not merely an ID so that police can identify you in a dark alley at night. It becomes a card that separates those who do not have it -- for whatever reason e.g. homelessness -- into second class citizens, unable to function in normal society. Again, notoriously, governments have used this power to deny access as a political weapon: the soviet Union comes to mind but there are many other examples. (See "The Russian Card: the Propiska" by Nicolas Werth)

4. Government IDs quickly become used across the board by all governmental agencies so that when you register for your card you are *de facto* registering for the draft, giving information (e.g. your address) to the tax people, etc. etc. Governments may deny that information will be shared but sharing seems to be the inevitable reality. Today, in the US, when you register your child for public school, the information is sent to the draft bureau so that no child can escape becoming cannon fodder in a future war.

5. On a purely emotional basis, the State requiring ID raises images of an owner branding cattle. It is a statement: you belong to the government and not to yourself.

I could run on and on...and I will if you think it would be of assistance...but you should also consider what the purpose of ID is in the first place. The valid purposes of ID include authentication -- that is, identifying you for people who are strangers but who are dealing with you in business, for example. (these are people who have acquired a "right" to ask for identification because you have approached them for an exchange.) Another valid purpose is certification -- that is, as a verified record of your possession of certain skills, for example, verification that you hold a medical degree. Ask yourself what the purpose of the currently suggested ID is. Who benefits? -- amorphous entities like society and the state at the expense of the bearer. Not of all the bearers, true. But of the ones who wish to decline. And this is always the mark of how much freedom a society has -- does a peaceful individual have the right to say "no" to an interaction and not be punished for doing so.

You might want to look into the recent controversy over the proposed Australian ID card. Simon Davies has a nice essay on the subject "The Australian Card: Campaign of Opposition." If you can't find it, I may be able to scan it for you. Also Claire Wolfe's website contains good info on ID cards (as I remember) and may take you on a fun surf across the internet.

Well...as I said, this has been stream-of-consciousness so I don't know how useful you will find it all. And, now, deadlines...must run...Good luck!

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