Wednesday, December 05, 2001

What's Our National Identity?

Oracle's Larry Ellison and Harvard's Allen Dershowitz have been all over the media recently pitching a National ID Card. One poll indicates 70% public support for the notion.

Most critics of a National Identity Card mention Hitler, police stops, and personal privacy to argue against the proposal. Those are good reasons to oppose a National ID Card, but they miss the idea's worst features.

Proponents of a National ID Card have a responsibility to tell us exactly what the system will do to day-to-day life in America. They are unlikely to do so because most thoughtful Americans would be alarmed at the prospect.

A National ID card is *not* really about identity. It is about authorization.

A modern National ID System will:

* Require Americans to obtain federal government authorization to travel, work, rent or buy housing, obtain medical care, use financial services, and make many purchases.

* This federal authorization could be denied for many reasons including database errors, a suspicious transaction profile, being a deadbeat parent, failure to pay taxes or fines, and any other social control
measures Congress wishes to hang on the system.

* The system will almost certainly create an outlaw class - as large as 10 to 20% of the population - cut off from "normal" life in America. This class will include political refuseniks as well as those whose behavior has caused the system's software to deny their transactions. This outlaw class will sustain the underground economy for the use of future terrorists (and ordinary criminals).

These effects are easy to predict because they've already happened on a lesser scale.

Previous National ID proposals covered such activities as travel, work authorization, national health care, and licensing of drivers. All of these proposed systems were meant to deny access to air travel, work, medical care, and driving to those who were not authorized for these activities. The events of September 11th mean that many more transactions will require a National ID. It is likely that the ID will be required for the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, Rx drugs, firearms, ammunition, knives, fertilizer, flying lessons, or any other goods or services the government considers dangerous. Additionally, in order to track the movement of potential terrorists, the New Improved National ID Card will have to control all transportation including car rentals and
purchases, accommodations and financial services. A large chunk of our lives.

When you present your National ID to complete a transaction, you will actually be asking the Federal Government for its permission. It converts most significant transactions that you make from private ones
to public ones. It creates a government license for all jobs, all travel, all medical care, and many purchases. This is a profoundly troubling departure from American traditions.

Beyond federal licensing there are all the reasons that the system will reject your proposed transaction. A National ID System can't control terrorists or illegals unless it uses software based on credit card fraud detection software to block suspicious transaction and then deny the use of the ID Card and notify the appropriate authorities.

To understand how this will work, you have to understand how modern credit card software works. A credit card authorization system performs a large number of checks to decide whether or not to authorize a
proposed transaction. First, it checks to see if the card is in the system, has not been reported stolen, and has adequate credit for the transaction. But then it goes further. It checks the customer's transaction history, it checks the exact nature of recent transactions and of the proposed transaction to see how they fit the customer's profile and the profile of fraudulent transactions that it has stored in its system. It then produces a "score" which it uses to determine whether or not to authorize the transaction. This is real "profiling".

But even if you are you, the ID card is valid, and your transactions aren't suspicious; your right to travel, work, and buy will still likely be blocked by social control measures added by Congress or the administrative bureaucracy. We know that this will happen because that is exactly what *has* happened with drivers licenses. A drivers license once meant that your state considered you a safe driver. Today, you can be denied a license for failing to pay child support, failure to pay traffic and other fines (including library fines), being a non-resident alien, and for hundreds of other "offenses".

State legislatures could not resist the temptation to leverage the drivers license system to control their populations. Their actions were based on the idea that "driving is a privilege not a right." The future abuse of the National ID Card will be based on the idea that "living is a privilege not a right."

When your National ID Card is denied (for whatever reason), you will find yourself in a very uncomfortable situation. But you will not be alone. In America today, some 20% of the population does not use credit cards or bank accounts because they are unwilling or unable to perform the financial management tasks necessary to maintain such accounts.  Similarly, the National ID card will produce a population of political or life-style refuseniks who will or cannot use it. Such populations do not disappear. They continue to survive as best they can and support a robust underground economy with its well-known negative effects on tax collection, obedience to law, and social cohesion.

As convenient as a National ID card seems for law enforcement, it is an unamerican notion. It comes from a political system explicitly rejected by those men who founded this country. The English language has a word
for a system in which the central government of a country must authorize in advance all of its citizen's activities. That word is totalitarian.

Duncan Frissell's Social Security card reads "For Social Security and tax purposes--not for identification."