The better question is, “Who does your government think you are?” Our personal identities are getting swallowed up in our nation identities, thanks to the REAL ID act (2005).
There are many good reasons why a centralized, nationalized ID card is a bad idea (aside from the obvious “Papers, please!” imagery). The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article by Bruce Schneier (I’m a fan) about some of the problems with a centralized national ID:
Decentralized authentication systems work better than centralized ones. Open your wallet, and you’ll see a variety of physical tokens used to identify you to different people and organizations: your bank, your credit card company, the library, your health club, and your employer, as well as a catch-all driver’s license used to identify you in a variety of circumstances. That assortment is actually more secure than a single centralized identity card: each system must be broken individually, and breaking one doesn’t give the attacker access to everything. This is one of the reasons that centralized systems like REAL ID make us less secure.
For example, with multiple identification tokens, if your credit card is lost or stolen, you make a call to the bank or card company and it’s settled: the card is deactivated and the damage is mitigated. The rest of your life is still secure. If you lose your library card, you might run up a big overdue fine, but that’s about as far as a criminal can get with a library card. Driver’s license? You can’t drive anymore (legally) but you shouldn’t have any trouble with the rest of your life as long as you’ve got additional id of some kind.
But let’s take all of these authentication tokens and consolidate them into one single card. Convenient, eh? Now are wallets are thinner and I don’t have to search around for the right card. Wherever I go, one card will work for all my identification needs. But as with so many other good ideas, the problems they create are often far worse than the problem they’re trying to solve.
Consider the problem of losing a national identification card: how do you cancel it and get a replacement? How do you prove to the government (again) that you’re legitimate and deserve a new card? If it’s pretty easy to get a replacement ID, why couldn’t someone who’s stolen your previous card do the same thing?
The first question we should be asking is, what problem is the nation id card trying to solve? From the DHS REAL ID website:
REAL ID is a nationwide effort to improve the integrity and security of state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards, which in turn will help fight terrorism and reduce fraud.
That seems like a noble cause, but having REAL ID won’t help fight terrorism and it won’t reduce fraud. The REAL ID initiative was born out of the evidence that the 9/11 hijackers had forged and faked drivers licenses among them.
But the rest of the story is that most of the hijackers has legitimate drivers licenses too, gotten through legal means. What’s more, some of the licenses were valid but had fake names on them; the weakness of the driver’s license procedures the hijackers exploited was the human weakness: they bribed a DMV clerk with $1000 each time they needed a new card.
Having a set of federal standards for a drivers license means that the REAL ID will be a de-facto national ID card, and this makes the REAL ID an even more attractive target for would-be terrorists and hucksters: a single point of failure in the system.
I’m all for improving the quality of the process to receive a drivers license, including training for DMV officials to avoid bribes, but a drivers license should remain a drivers license. We use it to ID people before they buy alcohol, tobacco and firearms because it is has a semi-official record of our birthdate on it. As the laws concerning the possession and consumption of these things are state laws, it makes sense that we can use a state issued ID card.
But to extend that state-issued card, which is simply a license to drive a motor vehicle on public property, and to use it for national identification purposes—and let’s be clear about this, a federal tracking system (why else would DHS claim it would reduce terrorism?)—this feels terribly wrong, like a big backward step in liberty.
I can’t point to any right that I’ve lost with a national ID card, other than the fact that honest citizens—the vast majority of Americans—have no need of it. To make everybody carry a national ID card for the sake of a few bad people seems wrong. History bears out the idea that as a federal government’s power increases, the liberties of its people suffer.
And REAL ID won’t work. Timothy McVeigh was a U.S. citizen. Would a national ID card have stopped him? No. Nearly all of the 9/11 hijackers were here on valid visas for legitimate reasons, and because this is a free country, we allow people here legally to also drive. I suspect most of them would have received their REAL ID cards as well. Even if we make the system foolproof, and note this, you cannot know a person’s intentions by making him carry an ID card.
You can have a pretty good idea of a person’s intentions through good old-fashioned detective and intelligence work. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were known to belong to terrorist organizations. Their whereabouts were already known to the FBI. 9/11 was a failure of action by federal crime agencies, plain and simple. To blame that failure on lack of identification is a red herring which will increase the federal government’s power and make us all less secure and less free.