net.wars: Papers, please

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 10 December 2004

The world of total surveillance edges closer. In Japan, before leaving, I read in the Daily Yomiura, the English-language newspaper that's silently USA-Today'd under your door in the Western business-oriented Tokyo hotels, that Japan is to bring in fingerprinting and facial scanning for foreigners, in imitation of - or perhaps payback for - the US.

Wendy M Grossman

Back in the UK, I read online that 81 percent of people in a Reform Party survey favour a national ID card. In the US, I see that Congress has passed a "sweeping" new intelligence bill that includes provisions that could in effect create a national ID card, something which even Bush a couple of years ago was calling "fundamentally illiberal"

(It's the 21st century. Shouldn't bills be vacuuming by now?)

In the UK, bringing in a national ID card - or, more properly, a national database register whose physical manifestation is an ID card - has been at least vaguely honest. After several consultations, the proposed legislation has been published. We can examine and complain about the details. We all know that David Blunkett is mad on the subject, but at least he's openly mad. We can point out to people the high cost -- £85 for an ID card/passport. We can, we hope, critique the database design. We can point out the high failure rate of government IT projects. We can make the argument that ID cards will not stop terrorists. Instead, they will simply be another form of identification that terrorists get so they can move around without being questioned. The 9/11 bombers, as security experts like Bruce Schneier keep reminding us, had perfectly valid IDs.

Which brings us to the matter of a US national identity card. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 is the villain of the piece, which, what with one thing and another I'd missed until a reader emailed in last night to point out Ron Paul's Congressional opposition to it.

Of course, a lot of people outside the US have long insisted that the fact that almost everyone carries a driver's licence has always amounted to a de facto national ID card system. But that wasn't quite true. For one thing, even in the US some people don't drive. (Although, to be fair, if you find it inconvenient not to have a document to show when you want to write a check in a store or prove your age in a bar, you can get a "Sheriff's ID" from the local police that serves those functions.) For another, every state had different standards and formats for licences, and often did not share information about them.

The same was true, incidentally, of vehicle registrations - in the 1970s, when I was driving 50,000 miles a year across the US, this was a convenience since it meant that I could pretty much ignore parking tickets issued outside of my home state. What the bill brings in is nationwide standards for licences and birth certificates and – and this is the bit that Paul was talking about - linking them together into a national database. This is why the card itself is just a McGuffin.

Paul also argues that the 9-11 Commission report, whose recommendations underlie the Intelligence Act, proposed domestic screening for travelers, and that creating these national standards might, therefore, presage domestic travel restrictions. Arguably, these already exist, in that it is no longer possible to board a long-haul bus or train without picture ID. This is, again, the case that John Gilmore is pursuing against the federal government. The most recent news on that front: a spat over whether federal officials have to show the text of the rule requiring identification. Of course, you can still drive without intereference.

What it comes down to is whether you believe our countries are at war. Most people accept that tighter restrictions are necessary in wartime. Britain's last national ID card, for example, was in World War II, and quite a few people who are at least not terribly opposed to having one now seem to take the view that this is the situation we're in. That might be justification for introducing something temporary quickly now. It doesn't provide justification for spending billions of pounds on a scheme due to begin rolling out in 2008.

The fact is that governments, and especially civil servants, like surveillance and documentation. It seems neat and tidy to know who everyone is. It must feel like control to be able to inspect dossiers and papers. Most of the people proposing national ID cards probably really do believe that these will engineer a more secure world in which everyone is known. Like things used to be, when everyone lived in small villages. But that's not real life. Real life is mess and uncertainty and risk. Fingerprint and document people all you want, you will never be able to predict when someone who's been entirely law-abiding up until now is activated as part of a unit you had no idea existed. That requires a different kind of intelligence than identification documents will ever provide.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).