a division of Home School Legal Defense Association
March 15, 2002

Terrorist Attacks Renew National ID Debate
By Samuel Redfern
Congressional Action Program Manager

Recent security concerns in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks have generated new interest in setting up a national ID system. After consulting with Attorney General John Ashcroft, Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison offered to donate the necessary software to the federal government. The offer sparked fierce debate in the media, with most elected officials showing little support for setting up national ID through federal law.

Unfortunately, this does not end all debate. Federal law is one of several possible routes to establishing a national ID card. It now appears more probable that a national ID would evolve bureaucratically from other forms of identification. The most likely candidate is a card that nearly every U.S. resident over age 16 already possesses, the driver's license. One group, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) is pushing hard to turn driver's licenses into a de facto national ID. The organization has proposed a national standard format for driver's licenses and is working with both the Bush Administration and Congress to fund its plan.

The National Center for Home Education's Manager of the Congressional Action Program, Sam Redfern attended a meeting in Washington DC in late January on national ID Cards. Although there were a handful of senate and congressional staffers present, most groups represented were involved with transportation, high tech identification, and family policy.

Who is Leading the Charge for National ID?

Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), a key figure in the debate, has stated that he is supportive of a national ID system. National ID proponents believe it is not ideal to leave a "national" problem to the states. However, because the general public (as well as Congress) is squeamish about the federal government warehousing large amounts of private information, Durbin suggests congressional "oversight" of state departments of motor vehicles (DMVs). In concert with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the Illinois senator is proposing legislation that would create a uniform standard for the country's 200 million state-issued driver's licenses. Durbin noted that the driver's license has become "the most widely used personal ID in the country. If you can produce one, we assume you're legitimate." At present, nearly anyone can get a license; 13 of the 19 September 11 hijackers did. Having those licenses "gave the terrorists cover to mingle in American society without being detected." 1

Since Americans use the driver's license as a de facto national ID, Durbin and others argue, "Let's make it more reliable." As it stands, the chief requirement for a license is that one knows how to drive. This is fine if the only intent is to ensure that someone has mastered the process of correctly operating a motor vehicle. But it should not be sufficient to get someone into a federal building, an airport concourse, or the Olympic games. All a terrorist needs to do is shop around for a lax state (Florida still doesn't require proof of permanent residency) or resort to a forger with a glue gun and laminator.2

AAMVA Proposal

The AAMVA is the only group that has put a serious national ID proposal on the table. This organization has urged Congress to standardize driver license testing in the 50 states, using digital technology and bar codes to store information such as facial imaging, retinal scans or DNA.

Yet many state legislatures do not support this approach. When news broke about the AAMVA proposal in mid-January, few California lawmakers embraced the idea of national standardization of driver's licenses. Citing civil-liberty concerns, they were leery of vesting such responsibility in the state DMV. California's Department of Motor Vehicles has come under fire in recent years after an Orange Country Register newspaper investigation revealed the DMV has issued more than 100,000 fraudulent licenses annually, allowing criminals to steal a person's identity and siphon money from an individual's financial accounts. Another Register investigation and subsequent legislative interrogation revealed that DMV Director Steven Gourley launched six investigations of drivers he personally encountered on the road.3 This misuse of agency power must be addressed by the AAMVA if they are proposing a national ID system.

What Is the Real Solution?

If tracking terrorists is the purpose for creating stronger identification methods, the states or private industry should determine their own security measures. The federal government does not need to form a national database or national identification system.

The Fiscal Year 2002 House Transportation Appropriations' Report encourages the federal Department of Transportation to study and define "the types of encoded data that should be placed on drivers' licenses for security purposes, and to work in concert with the states toward early implementation of such measures." These guidelines could be the first step toward federal involvement in the standardization of state drivers' licenses and the implementation of a national ID.

At this time, there is no legislative proposal from Congress on the table to create a national ID system, although AAMVA is aggressively lobbying Congress with their own specific proposals. HSLDA has opposed a national identification system in the past and will continue to monitor these developments and inform our members of issues that impact their freedom.

Arguments Against a National ID Card

Proponents of a national ID card proposal must answer tough questions. Will it really help fight terrorism and prevent future attacks on America? France, Great Britain and Germany have the most sophisticated national ID systems in the world, yet several terrorists actually lived in and operated from these countries. National ID cards are known as "transport documents" to go to other countries inside the European Union (EU) and countries that have travel agreements with the EU. It has the same purpose as the passport used by Americans.

A national ID would not prevent terrorism.

An identity card is only as good as the information that establishes identity in the first place. Terrorists and criminals will continue to obtain -- by legal and illegal means -- the documents needed to get a government ID, such as birth certificates and social security numbers. A national ID would create a false sense of security because it would enable individuals with an ID, who may in fact be terrorists, to circumvent heightened security measures.

A national ID would depend on a massive bureaucracy that would limit our basic freedoms.

A national ID system would depend on both the issuance of an ID card and the integration of enormous amounts of personal information in state and federal government databases. A single typographical error, a database error rate, or common fraud could restrict an individual's ability to move freely from place to place or even make him unemployable until the government fixed his "file." Anyone who has attempted to fix errors in his credit report can imagine the difficulty of making an over-extended government agency, such as a department of motor vehicles, fix something as important as a national ID card.

A national ID would be expensive and direct resources away from other more effective counterterrorism measures.

The cost of a national ID system has been estimated at as much as $9 billion. Even more troubling, a national ID system mandated through state agencies would pass the bill along to the states, which may have more effective ways to fight terrorism and strengthen ID systems.

A national ID would contribute to identity fraud.

Americans have consistently rejected the idea of a national ID and limited the uses of data collected by the government. In the 1970s, both the Nixon and Carter Administrations rejected the use of Social Security numbers as a uniform identifier because of privacy concerns. A national ID would provide "one stop shopping" for perpetrators of identity theft who usually use Social Security numbers and birth certificates for false IDs (not drivers' licenses). Even with a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint, on every ID, there is no guarantee that individuals won't be identified, or misidentified, in error. The accuracy of biometric technology varies depending on the type and implementation. It would be even more difficult to remedy identity fraud when a thief has a National ID card with his identifiers but someone else's name.

A national ID could require all Americans to carry an internal passport at all times, compromising our privacy, limiting our freedom, and exposing us to unfair discrimination based on national origin or religion.

Once government databases are integrated through a uniform identification, access to sensitive personal information would inevitably expand. Law enforcement, tax collection, and other government agencies would want use of the data. Employers, landlords, insurers, credit agencies, mortgage brokers, direct mailers, private investigators, civil litigants, and a long list of other private parties would also begin using collected information the from database, further eroding Americans' constitutional rights.

  1. Margaret Carlson, www.time.com, "A Case for a National ID Card," Time Magazine, January 2002
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hanh Kim Quach and John Howard, The Orange Country Register, January 15, 2002

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