The New National ID Systems
Cato Institute


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The past few years have seen growing awareness and concern about U.S. government surveillance of the American people. Unfolding revelations about the National Security Agency’s collection of data about Americans via access to their basic communications channels have awakened many people to the increasingly real risk that the government might get — or already have — outsized ability to identify and track the populace. With that comes outsized power to influence and control.

Federal surveillance of private communications infrastructure is only one avenue along which government can monitor the private lives of citizens. Another is direct identification and tracking, such as would be possible under a national identity system. Since 2005, the federal REAL ID Act has encouraged states to combine their driver-licensing programs into a unified national ID system run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some states also require their businesses and government agencies to use E-Verify, also run by DHS, to examine the immigration bona fides of all newly hired workers. Full implementation of the E-Verify program would ultimately require a national ID system, and it continues to weave together databases of identifying information about all Americans. The threat of formal national ID systems is relatively well known, raising the question of whether the United States should have such a system.

Less well known are the many other government programs that would result in the comprehensive tracking of Americans without the use of an identity card or other formalities. State and local governments are deploying technologies such as facial recognition and license plate tracking that can observe and record the locations and movements of distinctly identified people, collecting and storing information about their comings and goings. Such programs position governments to make once-ordinary behavior like driving on city streets and strolling the sidewalks of American towns into recordkeeping events for an overly attentive state. Systems that gather identifying information about people, along with metadata revealing their movements and activities, together comprise what might be called the new national ID. These programs are on a trajectory to produce surveillance and tracking that is just as consequential and worrisome as the federal government’s surveillance and formal national ID programs.

A national identity system works against the interests of free people and a free society in several ways. One is by undercutting individuals’ privacy. A widely used identification system makes the collection of identity information easier and less expensive, so that governmental and corporate bodies collect more records of people’s actions and movements. Whether directly or by inference, that recordkeeping exposes more to data holders about people’s relationships, business activities, political leanings, social life, sexuality, and more. A national ID system undercuts the important background privacy protection of practical obscurity: the difficulty of learning about people when records are not created or when data are difficult to access or interpret.

Privacy is not just a feeling of seclusion or information control. It is also a protection for personal power. National ID systems help shift power from individuals to institutions. While providing some genuine benefits and protections, extensive databases of information also render people more susceptible to the influence or control of data holders. By learning where people have been, what they buy, with whom they associate, what their assets are, and where they can be found, for example, data holders acquire greater power. Businesses have greater ability to influence people using targeted and tailored marketing, for example. More important and worrisome, comprehensive databases of personally identifiable information give governmental authorities greater ability to exercise dominion over people and their property. People’s activities are easier for the government to monitor. Their commercial dealings are clearer to authorities. Their transgressions are easier for government agents to discover. People and their assets are easier to find and commandeer. These abilities give government greater power to control.