National ID card debate

Of all the rights enjoyed by Americans, the right to privacy is the greatest. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in a seminal opinion, the drafters of the American constitution "conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone.... To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the government upon the privacy of the individual...must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment."

Americans have always resisted the idea of a national identity card. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some people have begun calling for the institution of just such a card. The House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee held a hearing last December, for example, to examine the idea. More recently, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog group, sued the Office of Homeland Security, charging that it is secretly developing a national identification system that includes the use of biometric technology to identify U.S. citizens and foreign visitors.

The idea of a national ID card is unlikely to get very far, however.

The closest thing to a national identity system in the United States is the Social Security number issued to nearly every citizen, plus legally admitted aliens and anyone who applies for a federal benefit.

The turning point in the use of these numbers for purposes other than the Social Security system was 1996, when Congress passed several laws mandating their use on practically all state driver's licenses and for other more limited purposes. In response, a groundswell of opposition arose from civil libertarians who were worried about identity theft and the general invasion of privacy accompanying the use of a single identification number for so many different purposes. A year later, Congress repealed the laws mandating use of Social Security numbers for driver's licenses and similar documents.

Any further move toward greater use of Social Security numbers or a similar national identity system will make identity theft that much easier and more common. According to a recent report by the General Accounting Office, both the prevalence and resulting cost of identity theft are growing.

Furthermore, studies have shown that the institution of a more comprehensive national identity system would be costly and error-prone. According to one report, at a cost of $100 to $200 per person for document validation, the system could cost $25 billion to $30 billion to establish, and another $3 billion to $6 billion per year to run. Moreover, an error rate of just 1 percent for a labor force of more than 100 million people could result in the denial or delay of benefits to up to a million people at any one time.

For these and other reasons, the problems that would result from the adoption of a national identity card would certainly outweigh any potential benefits of such a program.

Peckinpaugh is corporate counsel for DynCorp in Reston, Va. This column represents his personal views.

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Materials discussed in this column include:

Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting); 5 U.S.C. : 301 note; 42 U.S.C. : 666; United States General Accounting Office, Identity Theft: Prevalence and Cost Appear to be Growing, No. GAO-02-363 (March 1, 2002); Sobel, R., The Degradation of Political Identity under a National Identification System, 8 Boston U.J. of Science & Technology Law 37 (2002); U.S. Federal Trade Commission, "ID Theft: When Bad Things Happen To Your Good Name."

See also Ng, B., Universal Health Identifier: Invasion of Privacy or Medical Advancement?, 26 Rutgers Computer & Technology L.J. (2000); Minor, W., Identity Cards and Databases in Health Care: The Need for Federal Privacy Protections, 28 Columbia J.L & Social Programs 253 (1995).

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