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Holding Back Big Brother

When the Social Security card was introduced in 1935, it was narrowly drawn to track employee contributions to the Social Security fund.  Now the same Americans who were assured it would never be used for identification purposes find that number emblazoned on their driver’s licenses.  This is the brave new world we overlook.  Want a job?  A mortgage?  A plane ticket?  Or perhaps you’re trying to enroll a child in school?  Vote in an election?  Cash a check?  Demanding to see your papers is no longer the prerogative of Stasi agents.  It’s standard procedure…and it stands to get worse.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, a move is on to reduce citizens to serial numbers.  With 1984 finesse, we can now capture the furnishings of life in a chip linked to a national database.  Everything from job history to medical information, travel records to purchasing patterns can be tied to a standardized card, a sort of domestic passport required for the basic functions of daily life.  And if certain legislators have their way, you could soon have one of your very own.

Several years ago, the issue of national id cards ventured onto the Senate floor where Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggested “a magnetic strip on which the bearer’s unique voice, retina pattern, or fingerprint is digitally encoded.”  Others recommended DNA prints, facial geometry, and signature analysis.  They got no traction at the time, but since the recent terrorist attack, a study by the Pew Research Center reveals that seven in ten Americans would now consider national identification cards. 

In a climate of uncertainty, measures once dismissed as intrusive are being given new license to trespass on civil liberties. Some are temporary inconveniences necessary to ensure order in the short term;  others, like national identification, amount to a forfeiture of freedom we will never win back.  Even the ACLU calls this “a misplaced, superficial ‘quick fix’ that poses serious threats to our civil liberties and civil rights.” 

But suppose we were willing to lay aside the counsel of privacy advocates and civil libertarians and barter liberty for security in the name of desperate times, desperate measures.  Would housing all personal information in a polyester card be sufficient to keep planes in their flight paths and stop terrorists at the border?  Not likely.   

Why should a national id be any more reliable than the documents presented to obtain it?  And in an age so advanced that we can recognize retinas, why could technology not be used to falsify documents or alter a central database?  Moreover, since sophisticated surveillance and intelligence already failed to detect or thwart these terrorists, do any honestly believe that cards would have stopped them?   Evildoers committed to spending their lives for malicious gain won’t be turned back by magnetic strips.  Thus a move designed to protect us will end up victimizing many to inconvenience – but not deter -- a few.

Times of crisis are marked by sacrifice – and stampede.  Waiting in longer lines is a reasonable concession.  The heedless compromise of basic rights is not.  Before the gravity of the moment drives us to hock a treasure we can never recover, we would do well to look long and evaluate the payoff.  Such a view will fast convince a free nation that no card, however promising, is worth our dearest principles.

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