ID Nation

The wrong way to go

By Dave Kopel, NRO columnist

National Review Online. Oct. 2, 2001. Also by Kopel: You've Got Identity. Why a national ID is a bad idea. National Review Online. Feb. 6, 2002.

Those who want to trade liberty for security are obliged to demonstrate that their proposals will actually improve more security. Consider that the United States already has a de facto national ID card: the driver's license. We also have a second de facto national ID: the passport, required for any person who wants to leave the country.

Now if the state-administered driver's license system is too susceptible to fraud, the obvious solution is to require everyone to obtain a passport, for which antifraud safeguards are more extensive.

What does a new "national ID card" provide that passports wouldn't? Passports are made out of paper, and have digitized photos. It would not be especially difficult to add a digitized thumbprint. But by ignoring the passport (which collects very little personal information, other than foreign-travel history) the national ID card gives the surveillance state a place to collect centralized information on an individual's medical records, school records, gun ownership, and much more.

In contrast, the passport doesn't have this risk of abuse: It just proves that you're who you say you are.

State driver's licenses, the federal passport, and similar identity documents (such as the Firearms Owners Identification Card issued by Illinois since the 1960s) sometimes work in preventing unsophisticated people from obtaining forbidden products. For example, there are some 16-year-olds who don't know how or where to obtain fake identification to buy alcohol, nor to they know any people over 21 who would make a "straw-man" purchase.

But let us remember that the purpose of the national ID card isn't better enforcement of vice laws, or preventing people from obtaining library cards under a pseudonym. The targets are extremely sophisticated terrorists, backed up by masters of fraudulent document production.

But we do know one beneficiary of a national ID card program. Oracle's Larry Ellison has offered to create the software to implement the program. Then, Oracle can rake in money selling the national ID card database and verification programs to governments and business in all over America.

Even if Oracle gave the whole thing away from free, Ellison's gift will shift the entire American population into a de facto national standard of using Oracle.

In some ways, this is like what Bill Gates did, by giving away Internet Explorer for free. But the difference is that Gates never lobbied for a law requiring that every person in the United States be forced to use Internet Explorer. Microsoft's newly expanded Passport program (to provide user identification for Internet commerce) is entirely voluntary. What kind of blow could Ellison strike at his bitter enemy Gates by converting the U.S. into a mandatory Oracle world?

Mr. Ellison, it should be remembered, hired private "detectives" to bribe janitors, steal trash, and spy on think tanks which spoke out in favor of Microsoft in the famous antitrust case. (One of the victims was the Independent Institute in Oakland; this group has no relation to Colorado's Independence Institute, where I work.)

When Oracle got caught, Ellison insisted that the dumpster diving and other dirty tricks were his "civic duty."

The more that information is centralized, the easier it is to steal a valuable quantity of it. A national ID "smart card" containing private information will provide many new business opportunities for Larry Ellison and other scurrilous characters who consider your privacy an obstacle to their business plans

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