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Whats Wrong With a National ID Card?

Many in Washington favor a national ID card.

This article is excerpted from "Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison," by Glenn Garvin and Ana Rodriguez, June 1995, St. Martin's Press.

An identity card. It sounds so benign. You might call it, as Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein does, a "machine-readable card that all job and benefits applicants would be required to present to verify their work or eligibility for assistance." Or you could call it a national ID card and work permit, because that's what it is. Or you might just want to call it a passport to hell, because for a lot of us, that's what it will be.

At the very least it will put every American's right to earn a living at the mercy of the federal government's whimsical computers. And at the very worst -- which, history teaches us, we have every right to expect -- it will be a brutally effective tool for the surveillance, manipulation and punishment of anyone who runs afoul of Washington's imperious corps of social engineers.

Nearly all the anti-immigration warriors favor a national ID card. There are various proposals for the form a card might take, but the most chic around Washington is the one proposed by Feinstein.

Feinstein's ID would look very similar to a credit card, with a strip of magnetic tape across the back. Encoded on the tape, along with your Social Security number, is your thumbprint. A potential employer inserts your card in a computerized reader, then asks you to put your thumb on an optical scanner.

The computer compares your thumb to the print on the card, and, if everything's kosher, it phones a Social Security/INS computer in Washington, which decides whether you're eligible for a job. The fingerprint stuff may sound a little science fictionish, but the scanning equipment is already being commercially marketed.

Feinstein says this process will be "fraud-resistant" and "counterfeit-resistant." Perhaps this claim is best evaluated by a professional fraud and counterfeiter.

"There really is nothing you can make that's 100 percent tamper-proof or 100 percent fraud-proof," said Frank Abagnale. "That's one of the reasons I don't think there will ever be a national ID card. We don't even have very good money. It's the worst currency in the world, printed with technology that's 75 years old. It's pathetically easy to counterfeit. I don't see how the government can come out with a secure ID when it can't even come up with a good dollar bill."

Abagnale speaks with some authority on the subject of counterfeiting: A boy wonder of the world of bunko, he forged $2.5 million in checks by the time he was 25, passing phony paper in 26 different countries. Two decades ago, he went straight and began working as a secure-document consultant. He designed the American Express Official Check, the company's version of a cashier's check, and the Clinton administration consulted with him on its doomed national health card.

"In California, they spent a fortune on their new driver's licenses," Abagnale observed. "They put holograms in them, used sophisticated sealants in the printing, just poured money into the design. And a few months after it was introduced, they arrested a forger with 50 licenses in 50 different names. I told them, 'all you've done is stop some kid from changing the birthdate on his license in order to buy a beer.'"

The anecdote about the driver's license is telling, because it leads to the unlocked back door into the national ID card: the ease with which all the "feeder documents" -- the documents from which any federal verification database will be drawn -- can be forged.

"Look, I designed Florida's birth certificate," said Abagnale. "It's got a street price in Miami of $5,000, so it's obviously a very valuable document. But it's still ridiculously easy to defeat all the security I put into it. I'll tell you how. A forger comes to Miami, goes to the Bureau of Vital Statistics and asks to see the death records for 1948. They'll let him view them in the office. He picks out an infant who died at birth and copies down all the information it's got there -- the mother's name, the father's, the time of birth, all that stuff.

"Then he walks right down the hall to another office where he can apply for a certified copy of the birth certificate. All he has to do to get it is to pay $5.00. And once he has that, he goes across town to a Motor Vehicle Department office and gets a driver's license in the name of the baby on the birth certificate. And with a driver's license, he can apply for all kinds of documents. For just 50 bucks, you can create 10 different identities for yourself in just a couple of days."

"I don't think people understand how many loopholes will be built into any attempt to create a national ID card," said immigration attorney Peter Larrabee, a San Diego attorney. "It has to do with the way our government is structured, federal rights vs. states' rights. We have no federal birth card. Every state registers births differently, and none of them has ever made security a high priority.

"Birth certificates in Texas, for instance, were not even centrally registered until 1948. And even then it was done in a pretty slipshod way. Any birth reported to the state was just written in a big ledger book, without requiring any doctor's signature or anything."

Not that federal records are much more reliable. Until 1972, the Social Security Administration would take an applicant's word about his age and identity when issuing cards. In 1991, Gwendolyn King, the agency's commissioner, testified to Congress that more than 60 percent of Social Security numbers were based on unverified statements. "That, of course, means that the Social Security number simply cannot be used effectively as a means of identification," she added.

The only ones likely to find a national ID card a significant obstacle to working will be honest people who become accidentally snarled in red tape. And there are likely to be a lot of them. The card will depend heavily on INS records to establish work eligibility -- records that a 1989 Justice Department audit found are incorrect 17 percent of the time. And a lot of people think that figure is way too low.

"The databases were not very good when I worked for the INS, and they're worse now," said Larrabee. "I'd say they're wrong 50 percent of the time, and that's being generous." In one recent case, Larrabee represented a San Diego sock factory where the INS claimed to have found 15 illegal aliens working. But it turned out that nine had legal work permits, and two weren't even aliens -- they were U.S. citizens. "I've had several other clients who experience 50 percent or greater error at the hands of the INS," he added.

A GAO study in 1988 showed that about 65 million people in the United States change jobs or enter the work force each year. Let's suppose that somehow the INS, through a superhuman effort that defies all our previous experience with federal bureaucracy, whittles its error rate down to a minuscule 1 percent. That's 650,000 people thrown out of work by mistake every year. The vast majority of them are bound to be U.S. citizens, native-born and bred.

Of course, they'll get their jobs back. Eventually. When the computer goofed during the 1992 test of a telephone verification system, it took the INS up to two weeks to search a job applicant's file by hand. And that was dealing with 2,668 searches over the course of a year. How long will the searches take when there are 650,000 a year? Six weeks? A month? Two months? And while the unlucky victim of the computer is waiting, who will pay his rent and buy his groceries?

"There have always been people in government who are attracted by the idea of a national ID card," said Annelise Anderson, a former associate director of the Office for Management and Budget. "It's potentially usable for so many purposes that it gives the government a good deal of power over its citizens. One of the protections we have against invasive government power is its inability to keep track of us in every single thing we do. But a national ID card, coupled with computerized databases, removes that protection. And to some parts of the government, that is the very thing that makes it attractive."

Naturally, the proponents of the card resent the implication that there's anything sinister about the idea. "It is not carried on the person, it is not an internal passport, it is not used for law enforcement," Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, the card's staunchest advocate, once snapped during a debate with Anderson. "It is presented at the time of new hire, and not just by people who look foreign, but by everyone. And it will say on it, I'm authorized to work in the United States of America -- that's it."

The first exceptions to the nothing-but-employment rule will come for some purpose that everybody agrees is beneficent -- say, tracking welfare applicants to make sure they aren't collecting benefits from more than one office. Then somebody else will propose that the card be used to hunt down deadbeat dads. And how about for keeping guns out of the hands of convicted felons? Tracking prescriptions of narcotics? Tracing people with sexually transmitted diseases? And from there -- "welfare cheats, tax cheats, pedophiles, terrorists -- you name it -- whatever you happen to be looking for today," predicted Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant who was formerly chief counsel to the House Subcommittee on Government Information.

"Eventually, it will be used as an internal passport," he continued. "Next time there's an Oklahoma City bombing, you think they wouldn't ask everyone to provide their ID card? There may be rules against it. But whatever rules are made can be changed. It's very easy to do. All you do is pass another law."

When the government stockpiles information, no matter how benign the intent, there is inevitably a malignant mutation somewhere along the way. Presidential misuse of the IRS is so routine that it's practically part of the job description.

Herbert Hoover raided IRS records for information on his conservative critics at the Navy League. Franklin Roosevelt used them against Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. The Nixon administration pulled so many IRS files that White House staffers called it "the lending library." "What's the big deal?" asked Vernon Acree, the IRS official who sent the files over to the White House. "We did the same thing for Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson."

Even the supposedly apolitical head counters at the U.S. Census Bureau have been unable to keep their promises not to share their most intimate data with anyone else. During World War I, the Census Bureau provided the Justice Department with names and addresses of conscription-age young men to aid in the apprehension of draft dodgers.

And in an even more infamous case, it helped carry out the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Each time a roundup of Japanese was planned in a new city, Census Bureau statisticians joined the meeting. They "would lay out on a table various city blocks where the Japanese lived and they would tell me how many were living in each block," recounted Tom Clark, the Justice Department's coordinator of alien control at the time. (Clark, later a Supreme Court justice, gave his account in an oral history for the University of California.) From there it was a simple matter for the U.S. Army to conduct block-by-block sweeps until all the Japanese were safely penned up in barbed wire.

Consider also the willy-nilly growth of the Social Security number. When the numbers were created in 1935, they were supposed to be used for one thing only: to record individual workers' payments into the Social Security system. Eight years later, Franklin Roosevelt decided all new federal record-keeping would be based on the numbers. In 1962, the IRS adopted them as taxpayer identification numbers. And after Congress permitted states to use the numbers for welfare payments and driver's licenses in 1976, they mushroomed: food stamps, school lunches, federal loans, even blood donations required Social Security numbers.

These days it's almost impossible to open a bank account or hook up your telephone without one. Like the Social Security number, the national ID card will spread into the private sector. At some point it will surely be proposed that credit histories be made a part of the computer dossier that's attached to the card -- mind you, just for use if someone applies for a federal loan. And soon after that, banks will start demanding that their loan applicants sign a waiver permitting access to the files.

For all the mischief that the private sector may create with the card, the real danger will still lie with the government. Because the card will double as a work permit, the government will have a truly unprecedented power to punish those it decrees anti-social. With a single keystroke, it can instantly destroy their ability to earn a living. How long before Janet Reno proposes two years without the right to work for anyone convicted of wife beating? Or hate speech? Or owning an assault weapon? And when Pat Buchanan is president, what kind of suspension of the work permit do you think he'll want for violation of the sodomy laws? Or flag burning? How long before both parties agree that Americans should have to pass drug tests to obtain -- and annually renew -- their right to work?

The campaign for a national ID card is not new. It first got serious consideration early in the Reagan administration, when Attorney General William French Smith suggested it during a Cabinet meeting. At first there were murmurs of assent. Then presidential assistant Martin Anderson (husband of Annelise) spoke up.

"Mr. President, I would like to suggest another way that I think is a lot better," he counseled. "It's a lot cheaper. It can't be counterfeited. It's very lightweight, and impossible to lose. It's even waterproof. All we have to do is tattoo an identification number on the inside of everybody's arm."

Reagan snorted. "Maybe we should just brand all the babies," he jibed.

The idea was never again taken seriously. Until now. At press time, two immigration-control bills were pending approval of the judiciary committees in Congress. Sen. Alan Simpson's bill (S 269) would require all parents to have their children fingerprinted by the federal government and force everyone older than 16 to submit fingerprints or other "biometric" data to be used on a new federal birth certificate (which would become a de facto national ID card); S 269 would also force each person crossing the border by land to pay $1 tax per crossing.

Rep. Lamar Smith's bill (HR 1915) would expand civil-forfeiture law, allowing the federal government to seize the assets of illegal immigrants, those suspected of hiring illegals, and anyone using or creating false immigration documents; add 1,000 new border guards for each of the next five years; and reduce the number of immigrants who can enter legally by about one-third, to 535,000 a year. An amendment offered by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) would require a "hardened, tamperproof Social Security card" including "a photograph, hologram, biometric identifier, and such other technology as is available to make the card as secure against tampering and counterfeiting as is feasible."

Both bills would establish a national worker registry, linking the databases of the Social Security Administration and the INS; reduce the number of refugees who could enter the country each year to 50,000 -- about half the number who enter now; and expand the ability of government agents to wiretap suspected employers or smugglers of undocumented workers.

Reprinted, with permission, from the October 1995 issue of REASON Magazine. Copyright 1995 by Reason Foundation, 3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90034.