The time has come for a reasoned, national dialogue on the merits and dangers of a national ID. What is at stake is not just an improvement, however slight, in domestic security but vastly increased convenience in an ever-more- digital culture.
Unfortunately, the debate is currently dominated by a din of paranoia and knee-jerk ideology—often from people who do not understand the technology in question. They come from both the right and left fringes of the political spectrum, from folks who sport National Rifle Association bumper stickers and from folks who write off annual contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union. The only thing they share, for the most part, is a fear of government and the unknown.
Clearly, a national ID and the database infrastructure that would be needed to support it pose dangers to civil liberties. But as a Harvard Law School professor, Alan Dershowitz, pointed out, every initiative involving our rights requires a delicate balancing of social values—in this case, "a little less anonymity for a lot more security."
Unfortunately, the two technology titans now pushing a national ID are highly suspect. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who kicked off the current controversy, made headlines a few years back when it was discovered he had hired private investigators to sift through the garbage of his competitors. And Sun CEO Scott McNealy, who jumped into the debate waving the Java flag, riled a lot of people in the late 1990s when he asserted that Americans had already lost all privacy and should "just get over it." With friends like these, a national ID hardly needs enemies.
At the same time, many opponents of the idea also lack objectivity. Did anyone really think that the ACLU, the Privacy Institute or the Electronic Privacy Information Center would give a national ID reasoned consideration? These advocacy groups are crucially important to the debate but cannot be allowed to frame it because they represent only one side of the social trade-off described by Dershowitz. Likewise, politicians from the far right will smell big government and socialist conspiracy in any identification effort, just as they have since 1935 with the Social Security number.
But not every attempt by a government to identify us is Big Brother tyranny, and there is a clear difference between identification/authorization technologies and surveillance.
The fact is, a voluntary national ID will eventually be a reality. Americans, exhausted by long lines at airports, bridges and tunnels and frustrated with having to carry myriad forms of identification, from credit cards to passports, will eventually demand it.
The time has come to stop tabulating all the things that are scary about a national ID and start determining how to get it right the first time.
IDs: Friend or foe? Tell me why at firstname.lastname@example.org.