2006-08-18 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

What We Need Is A National ID Card
By Howard Schwach

Just last week, a number of investigators working for the American government penetrated several border crossings from other nations using phony identification. In three instances, border guards did not even ask the investigators for any identification. In the six other cases, the phony (and not very well done, by all accounts) identification got the investigators over the border and into the United States.

That is not acceptable in this age of global terrorism. There has to be a standard, quickly-checked means of vetting identification not only at our border crossings, but at airports and other venues as well.

I know that there has been a traditional knee-jerk reaction against the idea of a national identification card because it "smacks of Nazism," and is considered 'anti-democratic," but we have to balance the fact that an open society has a built-in distaste for the idea with the reality that officials often have the need to know who we are and have the absolute right to ask that question and have the answer proven.

There is a law that requires every person, even the smallest newborn infant, to have a social security card. Why not move to the next logical step and require everybody to carry a national ID card displaying such simple information as name, date of birth, a recent photo and a social security number.

In fact, I would take even that simple idea one step forward and place a biometric unit like a thumbprint or other indicator into the card, one that could instantly be read by an airport screener or a border guard.

Wait a minute, you say, what about undocumented aliens, those who do not have social security numbers?

That's the point. Undocumented aliens could not gain access to many services because they do not have a card. That is precisely the idea.

No card, no job. No card, no flight. No card, no entry. No card, no government services.

There is a solution. Get a card. Do it the legal way. If you are an illegal alien under this system it would be very difficult to hide in plain sight.

And don't give that old "Nazi" shibboleth. Nobody wants a person's religion or gender choice on the card. Nobody is going to use a national ID to discriminate or harass. It is simply to be used to identify friend from foe, legal from illegal.

I understand that moving to a national ID card is not an easy decision because many citizens are opposed to such a plan. We have reached a point, however, where the lack of a national card is a greater threat than the civil rights issues involved in having the card.

Randy Larsen, the Director of the Institute for Homeland Security, writing in the Daily News, perhaps said it best.

"Adopting national ID cards is akin to most medical procedures," he wrote. "All have risks, but when the risk of inaction becomes greater than the risk of action, action becomes the better choice." Larsen, who obviously favors the idea, says that there are four questions that must be answered before moving to a national plan.

Does an organization and system exist that can insure ID credentials are properly issued?

Does the technology exist to create ID's that can't be altered or counterfeited?

Can we build an affordable system?

Does the public feel secure that such a system would do the job and still protect privacy?

Larsen thinks that the answers to questions one and four are "no," but I'm not so sure.

With digital photography and biometrics technology what they are, it would be simple to task an existing agency, such as the motor vehicle bureaus in each of the states, agencies which already have massive databases of information and photographs, to do the job. Sure, children and teens would have to be run through the system, but the majority of adults, at least those who are "legal" are already in the system.

As for trust, most people objected to Social Security cards when they first appeared on the scene. Now, however, they are accepted by virtually everybody as a necessity of modern life in America.

Jim Harper, the Director of Information Technology at the Cato Institute, a Liberal think-tank, does not like the idea of a National Identification Card very much, nor does he think that it will have its desired effect.

"The theory is that there is a greater security when someone can examine your background or track your movements," he says. "It's true that surveillance makes law-abiding people easier for authorities to control. People required to show identification can be run against data bases of outstanding fines and tax delinquencies at local shopping malls. But identification gives the government no similar control over terrorists and sophisticated criminals - the people we're trying to stop with ID checks."

He says that it is so easy to get phony documents that the government would not even know that the person to whom they were giving a

National ID card is indeed that person. "The negative consequences of a national ID card would be profound," he argues. "Lawful trade and travel would be disrupted for ID checks at a substantial cost to both liberty and commerce. What little benefits you would reap [from a national ID card] would not be worth such a high price."

Given the tenor of the times, I would much rather take Larsen's comments to heart than Harper's.

The threat is real and the problems of a national ID card are largely conceptual and illusionary.

We need a National Identification Card and we have to start now to come up with a plan for providing one.

We cannot afford to wait until the next terrorist attack to begin the planning and implementation of such a plan.

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