»  National Review

November 5th, 2001

  Your Papers, Please


In the present climate of concern about security, we have been hearing renewed calls for a national identity card. Two such calls showed up recently in respectable newspapers. Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corporation, which sells software for managing large databases, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal: "Digital IDs Can Help Prevent Terrorism" (October 8th). Ellison does not go into much detail about how a national ID card might actually prevent terrorism; in fact he leaves one with the impression that terrorists who were careful to keep their noses clean while in the U.S.A. would go undetected anyway. He does, however, make a very earnest pitch for Oracle Corp. to get the contract for the databases.

Later that same week Alan Dershowitz chimed in with an Op-Ed in the New York Times: "Why Fear National ID Cards?" (October 13th). Dershowitz imagines a minimal system: "The only information the card need contain is name, address, photo and [finger-] print." Such a system would, he argues, actually enhance civil liberties by "reducing the need for racial and ethnic profiling." It is encouraging to know that Professor Dershowitz's acknowledges such a need; though since, by the time the ID card has been requested and presented, the profiling has already occurred, it is hard to see how the card would help.

Both writers make the point that all sorts of databases already exist, full of information about our incomes, movements and private lives. A national ID-card system would simply make more efficient and useful what already exists in a chaotic and diffuse form. Ellison: "All these separate databases make it difficult for one agency to know about and apprehend someone wanted by another agency." Dershowitz: "It [i.e. a national ID card] would reduce the likelihood that someone could, intentionally or not, get lost in the cracks of multiple bureaucracies."

Well, yes. Reading things like that, I feel that I am looking at one of those optical tricks — like the stack of cubes that seem to be ascending and lit from below, until you blink and perceive them as descending and lit from above. What Ellison and Dershowitz deplore — the possibility that an individual can lurk quietly in the interstices of our numerous national databases — seems to me to be the last hope for individual liberty in the United States. It is sufficiently disturbing that the federal government can, by sorting through a pile of conflicting and unreliable data, track my movements and habits with modest accuracy. That they should be able to do this better and more efficiently is, it seems to me, a prospect to be dreaded.

There are other problems with a national ID-card database. There is the issue of data quality, for example. A study by the Cato Institute in 1995 showed that large databases owned by the federal government had high error rates: 5 to 20 per cent for the Social Security Administration, 28 per cent for the INS, 10 to 20 per cent for the IRS. The INS database, they found, routinely had people's first and last names in the wrong order, and mis-spellings were "rampant."

And then there is the matter of abuse. Because of the attacks on our country, we are currently in a collectivist frame of mind, with the percentage of Americans who say they trust the federal government to do the right thing "nearly always" or "most of the time" currently at 64 — twice the level of a year ago. I hope and believe that the sober style of the new administration has also made some contribution to this high level of trust. We must remember, though, that a national ID database, once established, would be available to all future administrations. It is hard to imagine the Bush people allowing low-level staffers to riffle through FBI files, or siccing the IRS on the president's personal enemies: yet exactly these things happened during the Clinton years. Both of our editorialists are blithe about the possibility of abuse. Dershowitz: "The fear of an intrusive government can be addressed by setting criteria for any official who demands to see the card." Ellison: "Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure would govern access … The 'probable cause' standard will still have to be met."

Compare the following, taken pretty much at random from the immense literature on government abuse of power and disregard of the law and the Constitution in the 1990s.

The IRS scorns safeguarding the confidentiality of taxpayers' financial secrets … In August 1993 the IRS revealed that 369 of its employees in one regional office had been investigated for browsing through the returns of friends, relatives, celebrities and others …

                 — James Bovard, Feeling Your Pain

The cheerful confidence of Dershowitz and Ellison in the efficacy of "criteria" and "probable cause" as a means of restraining government workers who are psychotic, venal, over-zealous or just inquisitive about the data that is in their charge, contrasts rather starkly with what we know about the actual behavior of actual bureaucrats when entrusted with our secrets, especially when, as apparently is fated to happen every so often, our government falls into the hands of liars and thieves.

And yet many Americans will feel that there is no choice. We have, they will say, been living in a fool's paradise: a quaint but hopelessly outdated notion of a country in which people can move freely without asking leave of anyone, can live lives free of interference by government busybodies, can engage in private transaction among themselves without any restraints other than those necessary to protect the weak from the strong. To prevent us from being ravaged by foreign evil-doers like Osama bin Laden, we must submit to a more "European" style of life, with more supervision by the authorities.

I do not accept this. A few elementary precautions and a rational immigration policy would do a great deal to prevent the repetition of a September 11th type horror. A swift and vigorous response to all attacks on U.S. citizens or troops, either at home or abroad, would work wonders in the way of deterrence. Even with all that, however, there is no perfect security; the odd lunatic or terrorist will always slip through the net. Then hundreds of us — or, in the rarest case, thousand of us — will be killed or maimed. There is a limit to what we can do to prevent this, short of instituting a system of permanent surveillance of all citizens and visitors, monitored by a vast army of snoopers.

In this, as in so many other things, Ronald Reagan set the right style. He did not waver in his support for Second Amendment rights even when he himself was shot by a lunatic, regarding such an occurrence as part of the price for living in a free society. In the same spirit, when the subject of a national ID card was raised in cabinet as an aid to controlling illegal immigration, Reagan dismissed it with the sardonic remark: "Maybe we should just brand all babies." In the present climate, one hesitates to tell that story, for fear the idea might be taken up in all seriousness and appear a few days later as a New York Times Op-Ed.