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The United States’ Experience

Interestingly, the most recent addition to countries that are implementing ID systems is the United States. For so long, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, efforts to install an ID system in the US have been staunchly opposed by privacy groups. In fact, moves to expand the use of the Social Security Number was consistently rejected in the 1970s and 80s. The Social Security Number (SSN) which was established in 1936 was created specifically to serve as a nine-digit account number to facilitate the implementation of the Social Security System. It is used to monitor benefits availment and the contribution of individual members of the US Social Security Administration.

In the succeeding years of its implementation, the government found other purposes for the SSN. For instance, in 1961 the Civil Service Commission started to use Social Security numbers to identify all federal employees. In 1962 the Internal Revenue Service started requiring taxpayers’ Social Security numbers to appear on all completed tax returns. The Social Security Administration (SSA) disclosed Social Security numbers to the private sector until public outrage halted the practice in 1989.

The advent of the information technology revolution paved the way for the many uses of the Social Security number. According to a 1995 study by the Cato Institute, despite a provision in the 1974 Privacy Act prohibiting other uses of the number without congressional approval, the number is now required in availing of insurance, employment and drivers’ licenses that it has technically become a sort of a ‘national identifier’ (Miller and Moore, 1995). During the Clinton administration, a ‘health security card’ was proposed but was also shelved even if the government assured “full protection for privacy and confidentiality.”

However, in the wake of September 11, there was a growing consensus in the US that the security environment has changed. In fact the survey group Pew Research Center showed that the ID system has gained the support of majority of Americans (Jones, 2001). Nonetheless, for them, surveillance of phone calls and e-mails still remains a ticklish issue. Likewise, The Oracle Chair, days after the 911 incidents, urged the US government to install an ID system and offered his company’s software services free of charge. But even then, the Bush administration, at least in public, was opposed to an ID system (ibid.).

Meanwhile, the USA Patriot Act of 2001, an anti-terrorism measure approved by the US Congress in the aftermath of September 11, sought for the development of biometric technology that can scan visa applicants. It was in May 2005 that a ‘de-facto ID system’ was signed into law by President Bush. The REAL ID Act mandates the creation of an ‘electronically readable’ and ‘federally approved card’ to people living and working in the US. Under the law, people living and working in the US will have to apply, through their state motor vehicle agency, for an ‘electronically readable’ and ‘federally approved’ ID card, which in effect replaces the old driver’s license. In essence, it aims to re-issue the driver’s license according to the standards of the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency. Data to be contained in the card include name, birth date, sex, ID number, digital photograph, address. The Department of Homeland Security is allowed under the measure to add other features of the ID such as retinal scan or fingerprints. Mechanisms to prevent fraud and tampering will be inputted in the card.

What makes the ID unique from the previous driver’s license is its standardization. At present, state driver’s licenses in the US vary from state to state. Some states employ bar codes while others have magnetic strips. Some do not have both. This discourages enterprises such as banks and airlines from using this in their client transactions since this will not contribute to efficiency. However, with a uniform ID, Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program, says: “It’s going to result in everyone, from the 7-Eleven store to the bank and airlines, demanding to see the ID card. They’re going to scan it in. They’re going to have all the data on it from the front of the card...It’s going to be not just a national ID card but a national database.” The US government will implement the measure in 2008.


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