The British Government won’t back down on its controversial plan to implement a national identification card system with data on every citizen, resident and long-term visitor stored on a single government database.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said March 6 the program will start with foreign nationals this year and work its way over the next three years to British airport workers and others in potentially terrorist-targeted positions, students and youth, and finally the rest of the population.
Her message and the movement have security and privacy experts and advocates wondering where this will happen next. Could the United States be headed down the same documented path?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has shied away from the term “national identification card,” but the program it is perusing is similar to that of the UK. Opponents to the program, like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, say the Real ID Act, passed in 2005, amounts to a mandatory national identification card, regardless of the nomenclature used. The Act compels states to comply with a federal mandate to begin to redesign their driver’s license systems by 2009. Part of that redesign includes electronically collecting and storing citizen information, and then having each state share the information with other states by linking databases. Federal agencies will have access to the states’ databases.
“We do believe that Real ID creates a fundamental infrastructure for a national ID system, so we do believe it is a national ID card,” said Melissa Ngo, director of the EPIC Identification and Surveillance Project in Washington, D.C. “The DHS has come out and said very clearly in the Real ID regulations that they want Real ID to be used for everything. Secretary [Michael] Chertoff, in an Op Ed piece, said it would be used as a baby sitter-so beyond getting an account at a bank, getting on an airplane, getting into a courthouse he sees it going into your private life to check on your baby sitter.”
Ngo said that the reason DHS is so interested in having a federal ID card is it makes it so much easier to track people-the idea being that if a person is known, then they won’t commit criminal acts. “Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber are two people that would have gotten a national ID card. But they were still criminals. It’s a huge fallacy that if you know the name of every individual out there then you know whether or not they will chose to harm you or the country.”
Others-the U.S. State Department and the UK Home Office for starters-contend that a better way to identify citizens is necessary, particularly after terrorist attacks in both countries.
Europe starts with small steps
Small Steps in Europe
Starting in November, foreigners from outside the European Union will have to fork over their personal data and biometric information-fingerprints are suggested, though biometric indicators can include such things as iris and facial scans-to the British government for a national ID.
In 2009 the program will extend to Britons working in areas vulnerable to terrorists attack and the following year will extend to include British students. By 2011 anyone applying for a UK passport will become part of the national identity register. People who apply for the biometric cards will have a choice as to whether they are issued a passport or an ID card, and all data will be stored in a national database.
The UK’s National Identity Scheme was announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2005 and the Identity Cards Act became law the following year. At the same time the Identity and Passport Service was established as an Executive Agency of the Home Office; the National Identity Scheme builds on the UK’s plans to add RFID chips to its passports.
The U.S. likewise has begun adding RFID chips to its passports.
Both initiatives-a national identification card and chipped passports-have been roundly trounced by security and civil rights activists on both sides of the pond.
While Britain’s Smith said in her speech that the goal of the Home Secretary’s office is to have everyone covered under the new Scheme 2017, others are hoping by that time the whole thing will have been scrapped. Making the national identification system compulsory will come to a parliamentary vote after the next national election around 2010.
Britain’s Conservative party has promised to ditch the whole Scheme if they take power in the next election. “The government may have removed the highly visible element but they have still left the dangerous core of this project,” said David Davis, the shadow home secretary said in media reports March 6. “The National Identity Register, which will contain dozens of personal details of every adult in this country in one place, will be a severe threat to our security and a real target for criminals, hackers and terrorists. This is before you take the government’s legendary inability to handle people’s data securely into account.”
In the United States there has been no less outspoken opposition to the Real ID Act. Nineteen states have passed legislation opposing Real ID in their states-however, the measures are non-binding resolutions, meaning any real non-compliance decisions will come down to each state’s governor-and another 20 states have similar legislation pending. Three states, California, North Carolina and Michigan are actively supporting Real ID.