Your Papers Please
by Declan McCullagh
EDITORIAL * January 21, 2002
Mandatory fingerprinting used to be something we imposed on military
personnel, criminals and criminal suspects. But if the idea of
national ID cards being pushed by the American Association of Motor
Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) gets traction, every American will
soon be inked - or tagged by another biometric identifier, such as a
retinal scan - all in order to make us "safer." Whether we'll be as
free as we used to be is another matter, of course. The AAMVA wants
$100 million from Congress to erect the U.S. government's first-ever
national ID system - complete with a centralized database to keep
track of all of us. It would supplant existing state-level and
state-issued driver's licenses, and we'd all have to carry one.
These so-called smart cards could be used to track our movements,
activities and purchases, and all the information would be dumped
into Uncle Sam's very own PC to be used for whatever "informational
purposes only" the government deems appropriate.
Of course, the AAMVA and other boosters of this bad idea try to
offer soothing words about the precautions against abuse, and how
much more "secure" we'd all be with Uncle Sam able to follow our
every move. "The whole issue comes down to improving public safety
and preventing identity fraud," enthused AAMVA spokesman Jason King.
"It will take changes in federal legislation. It will take changes
in state legislation, and it will most certainly require funding."
It will take changes in attitude, too. Americans will have to grow
accustomed to the idea of being tagged and catalogued like cattle -
and to swallow the imbecilic argument that such an electronic
dragnet will never, ever be abused.
David L. Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center is among
the lonely voices urging a thoughtful pause. "This type of system
will be a radical departure for this country," he said. And he
warned flatly: "It will be abused." Others agree, and they run the
gamut from the hard-core liberals at the American Civil Liberties
Union to the conservative Christian right - united in the belief
that government cannot be entrusted with such power, and that waging
war on terrorists should not require us to abandon the very freedoms
that make us a target. It's worth noting that nations such as
communist China keep close track of each citizen and require that
IDs be carried at all times and produced on demand. "Your papers,
please." - a phrase heretofore unknown to Americans - could
eventually become common currency. A crisis can bring out the best
and worst in people. The best we saw at Ground Zero in the aftermath
of September 11. The worst we're seeing now, as fear and the herd
instinct threaten to supplant our usually good judgment. There's
still plenty of time, however, to stop the national ID dead in its
POLITECH -- Declan McCullagh's politics and technology mailing list
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