Threat of National ID

December 24, 2001


WASHINGTON -- A device is now available to help pet owners find lost animals. It's a little chip implanted under the skin in the back of the neck; any animal shelter can quickly scan lost dogs or cats and pick up the address of the worried owner.

That's a good side of identification technology. There's a bad side: fear of terrorism has placed Americans in danger of trading our "right to be let alone" for the false sense of security of a national identification card.

All of us are willing to give up some of our personal privacy in return for greater safety. That's why we gladly suffer the pat-downs and "wanding" at airports, and show a local photo ID before boarding. Such precautions contribute to our peace of mind.

However, the fear of terror attack is being exploited by law enforcement sweeping for suspects as well as by commercial marketers seeking prospects. It has emboldened the zealots of intrusion to press for the holy grail of snoopery - a mandatory national ID.

Police unconcerned with the sanctity of an individual's home have already developed heat sensors to let them look inside people's houses. The federal "Carnivore" surveillance system feeds on your meatiest e- mail. Think you can encrypt your way to privacy? The Justice Department is proud of its new "Magic Lantern": all attempts by computer owners to encode their messages can now be overwhelmed by an electronic bug the F.B.I. can plant on your keyboard to read every stroke.

But in the dreams of Big Brother and his cousin, Big Marketing, nothing can compare to forcing every person in the United States - under penalty of law - to carry what the totalitarians used to call "papers."

The plastic card would not merely show a photograph, signature and address, as driver's licenses do. That's only the beginning. In time, and with exquisite refinements, the card would contain not only a fingerprint, description of DNA and the details of your eye's iris, but a host of other information about you.

Hospitals would say: How about a chip providing a complete medical history in case of emergencies? Merchants would add a chip for credit rating, bank accounts and product preferences, while divorced spouses would lobby for a rundown of net assets and yearly expenditures. Politicians would like to know voting records and political affiliation. Cops, of course, would insist on a record of arrests, speeding tickets, E-Z pass auto movements and links to suspicious Web sites and associates.

All this information and more is being collected already. With a national ID system, however, it can all be centered in a single dossier, even pressed on a single card - with a copy of that card in a national databank, supposedly confidential but available to any imaginative hacker.

What about us libertarian misfits who take the trouble to try to "opt out"? We will not be able to travel, or buy on credit, or participate in tomorrow's normal life. Soon enough, police as well as employers will consider those who resist full disclosure of their financial, academic, medical, religious, social and political affiliations to be suspect.

The universal use and likely abuse of the national ID - a discredit card - will trigger questions like: When did you begin subscribing to these publications and why were you visiting that spicy or seditious Web site? Why are you afraid to show us your papers on demand? Why are you paying cash? What do you have to hide?

Today's diatribe will be scorned as alarmist by the same security-mongers who shrugged off our attorney general's attempt to abolish habeas corpus (which libertarian protests and the Bush administration's sober second thoughts seem to be aborting). But the lust to take advantage of the public's fear of terrorist penetration by penetrating everyone's private lives - this time including the lives of U.S. citizens protected by the Fourth Amendment - is gaining popularity.

Beware: It is not just an efficient little card to speed you though lines faster or to buy you sure-fire protection from suicide bombers. A national ID card would be a ticket to the loss of much of your personal freedom. Its size could then be reduced for implantation under the skin in the back of your neck.

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