TCS Daily

Even for Libertarians, Optional ID Cards Worth Serious Consideration

By James K. Glassman - November 7, 2001 12:00 AM

The e-mails continue to pour in, and, frankly, I have been surprised at the strongly negative response to my piece about national identity cards that appeared on this website and in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here's a typical response from one of our readers: "If we created a new law which removed all pretense to privacy, just image how much control the government could then have over your daily life. Not only would you be unable to get on an airplane without your ID card, you would be unable to work or buy groceries. It has been noted that when the means of production are controlled by the government, resistance means slow starvation. Your plan just removes the government one step from controlling the means of production to controlling all access to the means of production."

The antagonism is almost visceral, but I don't think my position was extreme - or even at odds with my largely libertarian beliefs. Let's recap.

A Worthy Idea

Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, had proposed a "national database combined with biometrics, thumbprints, hand prints, iris scans, or other new technology [that] could detect false identities. Gaining entry to an airport or other secure locations would require people to present a photo ID, put their thumb on a fingerprint scanner and tell the guard their Social Security number. This information would be cross-checked with the database."

I said in my article on Oct. 25 that it was "a shame that Ellison [the man who hired private investigators to rummage through trash to snoop on Microsoft] has become the leading spokesman for this idea because it is worth serious consideration." Civil libertarians like the famous defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz as well as an impressive majority of Americans in surveys approve of national identification cards.

But others just hate the idea. They say that it is an invasion of privacy, an invitation for government to control our lives even more - and they argue that it won't work anyway.

All of these arguments are worthy, but they don't convince me. First, none of us can get on a plane today or travel abroad without some form of government identification. That is a fact of life, and it should be acknowledged. If we could ever have lived anonymously, we have not been able to do so for the past century or so - certainly since the advent of the Social Security card more than 60 years ago.

The problem is that driver's licenses, Social Security cards - even passports - are easily forged. I don't know about you, but I would feel significantly less safe if the airlines decided to allow people on planes without showing even a driver's license. I would feel significantly safer if I knew that the form of ID were more secure.


As for government control: Perhaps the answer, as Dershowitz advocates, is choice. You would not have to use a high-tech federal I.D. card to board a plane, but, if you did not, you would probably be subject to a more thorough search.

Such a choice system has already been implemented at Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam, and it seems to be working well. The airport, reported the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 30 "has installed computer-ized cameras that can snap shots of the iris - the eye's colored circle, surrounding the pupil - and instantly compare them with stored images of passengers' eyes to check identity. The passenger database would also have names, dates of birth and other personal data to be checked against the files of the Dutch border police. Fliers who pass the machine's muster would be waved through passport control, while border agents would scrutinize those who flunk - and those who don't want to stare into the lens."

The Journal reports that iris recognition technology is being used as well at Heathrow Airport in London and at Frankfurt Airport; meanwhile, hand-geometry ID systems are at work in Israel, and Germany, France, Switzerland and Finland are using broader "smart" cards for government services.

I completely agree that any citizen who wants to hermit-ize herself should be able to do so. Ditto, if you decide to travel by riding your bike or walking. But when you get on a flight with 100 other passengers, you have to make some concessions involving your behavior to remove the anxieties of the group. You can't ignore seatbelt signs or light up a cigar or otherwise jeopardize your fellow citizens. You have to submit to baggage searches and pass through electronic checkpoints. It stands to reason that you shouldn't be waved onto the plane with a cursory look at your driver's license either. Iris, fingerprint and other advanced ID systems work. They aren't completely foolproof, but they are far, far better than what we have now.

Striking a Balance

This country is at war. Yes, it is important to guard against the abridgement of vital American freedoms - but the freedom to get onto an airplane with inadequate identification is not high on my list. The freedom to travel is.

After the attacks on Sept. 11, George Shultz, former Secretary of State and current fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told CNN: "American life will pick up. We have to look to our security, obviously, and be careful about it. But we're not going to allow these terrible people to change our way of life." He's right. We have to make a distinction between increasing the efficiency of security mechanisms and jeopardizing our essential liberties, our way of life. A national ID card - especially one that is optional - strikes the right balance.


TCS Daily Archives