License and Registration

As a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I'd like to have one more card in my wallet. The card I want, contrary to the views of most civil liberties activists, is a national ID card.

Privacy advocates have always resisted this idea, for fear of government snooping on citizens. But that cat is out of the bag. Nearly all of us have driver's licenses, Social Security cards, passports. And corporations, credit agencies, and HMOs keep dossiers, too -- often more extensive than what government maintains.

For civil libertarians, the real issue is not whether government and business collect databases on citizens, but whether there are adequate protections against abuses.

Those protections have come under particular assault in the era of George W. Bush and the USA Patriot Act. But we will not solve the privacy problem by pretending that we are back in a pre-computer era. For that matter, Hitler did not need computers to abuse citizens.

There are several good reasons to support a national ID card. The first has to do with voter registration and democracy.

Tens of millions of Americans don't vote because we make voters go through a two-step process of registering and then voting. As we saw in the elections of 2000 and 2004, the registration process is an invitation to endless political mischief.

In fact, registration was introduced in the late 19th century precisely to hold down the numbers of votes, from former slaves and from recent immigrants. It still functions to hold down voting today.

In most countries, the national ID card certifies your identity, age, and citizenship. That's it. You present the card, and you vote.

In America, millions of volunteer hours and hundreds of millions of dollars go into the needless process of registering voters -- time and money that could go toward political activism and education. So a national ID card, with proper safeguards, would make America more democratic, not less.

The second big reason involves immigration and labor rights. We try to control our borders, but millions of foreigners overstay tourist or student visas or slip in illegally, in order to work. They are able to take jobs because business wants them here to work for low wages and be conveniently frightened of exercising their labor rights.

Our immigration laws require workers to have proof of lawful status, but employers are not punished if the papers turn out to be forgeries, which are easy to obtain. It's much harder to forge a passport-quality national ID card.

So let's decide just what level of immigration we want, make it possible for those immigrants currently working in the country to regularize their status, and then use a national ID card to make clear who is able to work -- and to freely exercise rights as workers without fear of being deported.

In an era where there is justifiable fear of terrorism, a national ID card would also help law enforcement. Identity theft would also be much harder if there were a single, government issued ID card.

A national ID card could help government pursue valuable record keeping, for instance to make sure that all children are immunized, and to pursue epidemiological research that is now difficult or impossible. A single government ID card would dramatically reduce underage drinking. Frail elderly people would cease having to renew drivers licenses solely for the purpose of ID. But libertarians are absolutely right to worry about potential and actual abuses. So the other side of the bargain is a much tougher set of laws protecting against improper invasions of privacy and snooping, both by government and by corporations.

There should be tougher penalties if an HMO sells confidential medical records. We need stronger measures against unwanted telemarketing, and against abuse of credit records.

The so-called USA Patriot Act has outrageous provisions, such as warrant-less snooping and "sneak and peak" searches in which the subject of the search is never informed that his or her privacy has been violated. These need to be repealed and replaced with far narrower search and seizure provisions that are not broad fishing licenses.

Right now, we liberty-loving Americans have the worst of both worlds. Far too many databases keep far too much information on us, with too few controls on its misuse. Yet we don't take advantage of the most basic uses of ID, such as making clear who is properly in the country and making it easier for citizens to vote.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

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