Your Government

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By John W. Whitehead

Reprinted With Permission

    Just imagine that it’s a pleasant evening and you decide to take a walk. After grabbing your coat, you head out the door for the same walk you’ve taken so many times before. But this time, a patrol car pulls up beside you and a police officer asks for some identification. You come up empty-handed, except for a pocketful of change and house keys. So instead of finishing your evening stroll, you end up visiting police headquarters to “validate” your identity.

    As far-fetched as it may seem, with every day that the U.S. government wages its “war on terrorism,” this scenario is becoming more of a reality. Indeed, in the weeks since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush has assumed increasingly broader powers in order to rout out terrorists. Congress has also approved a number of over-reaching measures, ranging from so-called “sneak and peek” searches on homes and offices to roving wiretaps and expanded powers for law enforcement officials.

    But now comes the ultimate human tracking device—the national ID card, hailed by many as necessary in America’s fight against terrorism. Referred to by its critics as “an internal passport,” the national ID card has long been the subject of debate, both here in the United States and abroad. And now the debate that once revolved around controlling immigration has become a pivotal part of our attempts to monitor and eliminate terrorist activity.

    Yet according to Simon Davies, director of the watchdog group Privacy International, in order for a national ID card to play any major role in this war against terrorism, three things would have to be put in place. Present in almost every national ID card system introduced in the past 15 years, these three components are: mandatory biometric information, i.e. finger or retina print or DNA data, along with personal data such as race, age and residential status; an expansion of police authority to demand the card in a wide range of circumstances; and a greater sharing of information between all government divisions. 

    In other words, everything you didn’t want anyone, including the government, to know about you, the national ID card will make accessible. Yet with the attacks of September 11 still fresh in the minds of the American people, there seems to be less opposition to the creation of a national tracking device that would include a centralized computer-based registry of all U.S. citizens. 

    In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, when Americans were asked whether they would favor requiring that all citizens carry a national identity card at all times to show to a police officer on request in order to curb terrorism, 70 percent said yes. Of those same individuals surveyed, the majority did not approve of allowing the U.S. government to monitor personal telephone calls and e-mails or credit card purchases—which the recently passed federal anti-terrorism legislation allows. 

    Presently, Social Security is the one system that comes closest to resembling a national database. Yet as some states consider linking their computer networks, thus creating a national database by default, state-issued drivers’ licenses are fast becoming the back door to a national ID card. In fact, several states are now seriously considering proposals to increase the amount of information provided in driver’s licenses to include fingerprints and retinal patterns. 

    With a mandated national ID card, there would be very little information that could not be tracked or monitored and cross-referenced. Obviously, the card raises serious privacy concerns, especially now that Congress has given its blessing to the sharing of information between major Secret Service branches of government. In addition to pushing the constitutional limits of privacy, government-maintained, national information database immediately gives rise to worries about the misuse of information and abuse by those with access to databases. 

    David Banisar, deputy director of Privacy International, claims that "for a national ID card to actually do what its proponents claim it would, someone would have to watch every individual's move from when they got into their car and where they drove to what they bought throughout the day." If so, are Americans really prepared to have their every move monitored? 

    Thus far, President Bush has reportedly been reluctant to issue a national ID card. But the pressure on the President is building, from both the business and political sectors. In fact, the CEO of a technology company with close ties to the CIA has even offered to donate the necessary software. 

    Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has now added a voice of reason to the debate. In remarks made after a speech at the University of Missouri, Scalia suggested an alternative to the courts shaping policy on the issue of a national identity card. He recommended that the issue be put through the amendment process, thus letting Americans determine through the popular vote if they want to be tracked. When asked whether he would vote against allowing a national ID card, Scalia stated that he probably would.

    In the end, the debate that wages on is really about the rights that Americans are willing to surrender in order to maintain the kind of society we want. History is wrought with struggles over the rights of individuals versus governmental powers. Thus, we should not be hasty in adopting measures that would sacrifice all the precious freedoms that our forefathers fought and died for. No matter what course of action we take, it’s time for an open national discussion—and a vote—on the merits and drawbacks of the issues before us. 

    We are at a crucial time in our nation’s history. The freedoms we are willing to give up today in the name of peace of mind and personal security are the ones we may never see tomorrow. And we must remember that future generations—our children and grandchildren—will reap the fruits of our rash decisions.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Grasping for the Wind. He can be contacted at [email protected]   Information about the Institute is available at