A briefing paper issued by a US private think- tank argues that had there been an ID system in place in the United States, the September 11 terrorists, some of whom lived in the US and were on government watchlist, would have been caught had they tried to board a plane or purchase anything using their credit cards. An ID system would have meant that a computer chip embedded in the ID card could have easily identified anybody who is on a government watchlist (Wang, undated).
Today, as global terrorism remains on the rise, governments of the United Kingdom and the United States have revived proposals to put up a national ID system even in the midst of stiff opposition from various interest groups. In May, US President George Bush signed into law what is tantamount to a national ID program.
In the United Kingdom there is extreme pressure to shelve legislation for an ID system. The London School of Economics and Political Science, which was commissioned by the UK government to conduct a study on its Home Office Identity Card proposal, came out with a report urging the government to abandon the proposal. It argued that an ID system runs the risk of “failure of systems, unforeseen financial costs, increased security threats and unacceptable imposition on citizens” (LSE, 2005).
Issues and Problems: The Debate
A host of issues and concerns relative to the implementation of an ID system makes it a contentious measure. The following are some of the issues raised and the debate between those who support its implementation and those who are against it.
Human Rights and Privacy Issue
Civil libertarians and human rights activists reject the idea of a national ID card based on three reasons: “functionality creep,” the potential for misuse due to identity fraud, and the privacy
issue. The common denominator that runs through these arguments is the extent through which the government would hold power vis-à- vis its citizens.
According to human rights activists, an ID system can be a double-edged sword because it can suffer from “functionality creep” which means it can serve purposes other than its original intent. Thus, even if the original rationale for an ID system is simply to cut government red tape, a government may eventually use it as a mechanism for repression against political opponents or to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity. For instance, as mentioned earlier, the Rwanda genocide in 1995 was facilitated by the use of ID cards. Newspaper reports recounted that Rwandans who presented ID cards bearing a Tutsi identification were hacked to death by the Hutu militia.
While supporters claim that ID systems can be legislated to specifically state the purpose of its implementation, critics believe that this is not a guarantee. The context or political environment within which ID systems are implemented is not static, hence the potential for abuse is very great.
The advent of biometrics and microchips technology also has profound implications. Critics argue that the potential for abuse and invasion of privacy is even greater with the use of biometrics since it is vulnerable to identity fraud. The citizen is no longer in control of his personal information. For instance, the research claims that “facial recognition and iris scanning can sometimes be defeated by presenting a picture of someone else’s face or iris” (CRS,2005). Activists on the other hand, are more concerned with information security such as “unauthorized changes to or disclosure of biometric data stored in a central database or on an identity document” (ibid.).
Proponents of ID systems on the other hand contend that the use of a Personal Identification Number (PIN) such as that found in automatic