With the stated intent of combating illegal immigration, Senators Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) are crafting new legislation to institute a national identification card. The card would be required in order to be eligible for employment, and would in turn enable employers to identify and reject illegal immigrants who are seeking work.

The card would be biometric, i.e., containing identifying characteristics unique to the physiology of the cardholder. In this case the biometrics would most likely be comprised of either a fingerprint or a scan of the veins on the back of the hand. This is not the first time a biometric card has been proposed: in the wake of 9-11, there was a strong push for a national ID card on the basis of national security.

Schumer and Graham claim that the institution of a national ID would not be accompanied by the creation of a complementary database; however, no national identification system has ever operated independently of a database. It would be impossible to run a national ID system without a corresponding database available for purposes of verification.

Thus, although the card would initially include only biometric and citizenship data, such a national ID system would be the backbone of a virtually limitless government-run database comprised of citizens’ personal information. Networked with other sources of government information, a national ID system would allow the government to create expansive personal profiles of every individual in the United States.

The appeal of the national ID card, apart from its supposed efficacy in excluding illegal immigrants from the workforce, is that it provides an efficient means of identification and simplifies processes requiring identification. The ID card, for instance, could potentially be used at borders, in security clearance checks, and in streamlining government distribution of entitlements.

But there is little reason to believe that a national ID system, once instituted, would be confined to these original functions. It is far more likely that the national ID would come to serve, as the ACLU has argued, as an “internal passport,” allowing government to track law-abiding citizens as they go about their daily business. It is plausible, even, that the national ID could eventually supplant all other forms of identification and be employed in virtually every transaction.

Under such a scenario, whenever you make a purchase, you swipe your national ID card for verification. To check out a book at the library you use your ID card. To swipe into your office, or even your home, you simply use your ID card. At toll booths, you swipe your ID card. In the name of security and efficiency, the ID card could be employed as a means of identity verification in virtually every situation the individual takes part in throughout an average day.

As the proprietor of the card, the government would have access to this data and funnel it into its ever-expanding database. The government would then have an extensive record of countless transactions in which the average American engages. In short, the national ID and its corresponding database would form the backbone of a totalitarian surveillance state.

The card is a gateway to East German-style monitoring of individuals’ personal lives. Every act would be subject to governmental scrutiny. Many aspects of personal liberty have not heretofore been legislated simply because relevant laws would be unenforceable. But if the government were endowed with complete surveillance power, every facet of human life would be opened up to regulation and intrusion.

As has been the case in the past concerning national ID legislation, the issue here concerns the competing interests of privacy and law enforcement. The question of properly balancing these has posed a perpetual problem for a country committed to the safety and freedom of its people.

The real problem, however, arises when methods adopted for the purposes of law enforcement are instead appropriated in the employment of less savory programs. Creating political structures that endow leaders with vast control over the personal lives of citizens is to invite abuse: leaders with no scruples concerning personal liberty have no qualms employing government power to oppress the people.

What is important, then, in cases involving security and the collection of personal data (similar observations apply to wiretapping) is to maintain due process of law. The avenues of information available to government must be tightly controlled and subject to strict judicial scrutiny. In most cases this takes the form of warrants.

A warrant strikes a balance between liberty and security: it typically allows the government access to information, but does so only after forcing it to submit to procedural safeguards and the objective evaluation of a judge.

The problem with a national ID card and a federal database is that there are no procedural safeguards. In other areas these procedural safeguards have been eroded (for instance, by the Patriot Act), but with a national database no such safeguards would exist from the start. The government does not need a warrant to access its own database.

The power to track every citizen and monitor his daily behavior is a power that could not wisely be trusted to any individual. Even socialist England has rejected a national ID, largely on the basis of privacy concerns. The goal of law enforcement is certainly admirable. But the potential benefits of a national ID pale in comparison to the abuses possible at the hands of a government with unchecked surveillance powers.  

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