Time to rethink opposition to a universal ID

Robert Kuttner

August 09, 1991|By Robert Kuttner

AMERICANS have an almost paranoid fear of the government keeping records on them. Proposals for a national data bank or universal ID card seem to smack of the internal passports associated with the Soviet Union or the racial classifications of SouthAfrica and Nazi Germany.

This instinct is deeply rooted in the culture of a liberty-loving people whose first national motto was "Don't Tread on Me." Yet we pay a price for this national aversion.

Paradoxically, it RobertKuttnercan encumber our freedoms -- by limiting government's ability to protect our rights in areas as diverse as criminal law enforcement, gun control, Census data collection, immigration and voting rights. Other Western democracies manage to have national civil registries of births and deaths and national identity cards, without leading to government abuse of power or loss of civil liberty.

As the IRS learns more and more about our finances, as our Social Security number keeps being appropriated for other purposes and as commercial computerized data banks routinely trade confidential information, the issue is almost moot. Today, we have something close to the worst of both worlds -- massive violation of privacy without coherent use of records for beneficial national purposes.

As one Senate Judiciary Committee aide observes, "We are backing into a universal ID system, without admitting that's what we're doing, for fear of the political reaction." We might be a lot better off if there were a single ID card and a national data bank -- but with stringent restrictions on its proper uses. Consider the following recent dilemmas:

When Sen. George Mitchell sought to broker a compromise on handgun control that would require a quick check with a national data bank of known criminals and psychopaths, he was stymied by the fact that no such data bank existed. Congress, fearing a public outcry, has refused to create one. If there were such a registry, gun dealers and buyers could get a quick approval or justified rejection from the authorities, and fewer psychopaths would have guns.

The Immigration Reform Act of 1986 has been repeatedly undermined by the ease with which a fake ID can be obtained. There are now more undocumented workers in the economy than at the time the act was passed. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is stymied in its efforts to crack down on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, because faking an ID is no big deal. With adequate records and a single, hard-to-forge official ID, employers and legitimate workers would both be protected.

Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher has decided to ignore the 1990 Census under count of several million people, mostly minority and poor. As a result, America's most hard-pressed communities will be denied full government aid. If there were a national registry of births and deaths, instead of the 19th century practice of leaving it up to towns and counties, the Census would be less likely to lose 5 million people.

Voting participation is at a record low, lower than in any other Western democracy. A single ID card would eliminate the need for voter registration, a hurdle that needlessly keeps millions from the polls.

A universal registry of citizens and a single ID card, whose counterfeiting would be a serious crime equivalent to printing bogus money, would make all of these issues easier to resolve.

To be sure, this proposal at first seems almost un-American. But look in your wallet. You will find perhaps a dozen numbers, on credit cards, insurance cards, driver's license, bank records, draft card, and so on. Each of these represents somebody keeping track of you -- your finances, your medical history, your driving record.

Unfortunately, this proliferation of diverse ID numbers does not spare us the intrusion of data banks. It only magnifies the task of imposing either coherence or rules to protect privacy.

Thanks to the computer, data banks are a fact of modern life. Rather than seeking protection of privacy in fragmentation, we should carefully define who may obtain access to records, and for what legitimate purposes.

When the Social Security Act was enacted in 1935, fear of a government ID was so widespread that the act required a special disclaimer that the card was "not to be used for purposes of identification" -- whatever that meant. With Social Security numbers now in widespread use, the Social Security Administration has discreetly removed the disclaimer from cards issued in the past few years. In the 1940s, Americans saw tyrants overseas abusing public records to categorize people and lock them into concentration camps.

Yet our phobia about recordkeeping misses the point. Hitler and Stalin needed no computers to enslave their people. America follows the rule of law, not because we fail to keep decent records but because we are a deeply rooted democracy. The more incoherent and paralyzed the government, the more cynical people become about democracy itself.

It is time for civil libertarians -- of both the left and the right -- to rethink the way their knees jerk on this issue.

Robert Kuttner writes a weekly column on economic matters.

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