National I.D. By Any Other Name Still Stinks

A patchwork of state-level systems accomplishes what Americans have specifically rejected, and perhaps far more.


Cory Doctorow/flickr

There have been many pushes to centralize and standardize our individual identification data at the federal level. But when given the choice, American voters and their representatives have always rejected the idea of National I.D. Alas, that hasn't stopped the government with going ahead with it anyway.

In a new report published by the Cato Institute, Jim Harper of the Competitive Enterprise Institute details how a patchwork of state-level systems and programs that collect and share data already does everything the National I.D. proposals of the past ever hoped to, and is poised to do much more.

Harper's report identifies six different programs that in conjunction with each other can or already do provide federal, state, and local authorities with near-instantaneous access to huge amounts of identifying data. Combined, they form a de facto National I.D.

The most familiar (and also most complete) of these systems are the federal REAL ID driver's license standardization mandates and the E-Verify digital employment eligibility checks used by a number of states.

For those who have followed the years-long controversy over REAL ID, the report's most dismaying insight may be that the fight is essentially over. After years of resisting or refusing implementation of the Department of Homeland Security's REAL ID requirements, all 50 states are now in at least partial compliance.

The result, the report says, is a nationwide system in which "even a small-town sheriff in rural Georgia or Vermont could have access to a database of hundreds of millions of Americans' images." Between that and E-Verify, that sheriff could easily tie a face to a Social Security account—a National I.D. measure that voters have vociferously opposed, and that was rejected when it was proposed in the 1970s.

This de facto National I.D. becomes even more expansive when combined with a number of new technologies that states are starting to roll out. Harper discusses the possible combinations of REAL ID and E-Verify with the facial and license plate recognition technologies many states are already using, either in experimental or full-fledged forms.

It's troubling enough that a single license plate recognition unit bolted to a telephone pole on a small town's main street might allow Barney Fife to build an extensive record of residents' comings and goings with minimal effort, or that a facial recognition program tacked onto the New York Police Department's city-wide CCTV network could automatically track and log your walk from Harlem to Chelsea. But a world is fast approaching in which Barney and Bill Bratton can share that information with each other immediately, without any meaningful oversight or restriction.

NEXT: If You Bought Drugs on the Silk Road Using Bitcoin, the Feds Might Know Who You Are

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  1. PA almost stood its ground. No Real ID licenses yet, but soon we’ll get to pay twice as much just for the honor of being included in that exclusive club known as NATIONAL DATABASE.

  2. Sort of OT, but what’s the deal with passports being so expensive? They’re like 170 bucks. So it would cost a family of four over $700 to be allowed to leave the country? Worse than the wall!!!

    It’s a little blue book with a picture and a few pages. Seriously, this is really annoying.

    1. Leaving the country is a PRIVILEGE!

      1. LOL. Yeah, that was in fact the original purpose of a passport. You got one from your own country (like the US or England) so that when you traveled in an “uncivilized” country (like Russia or Japan), it identified you as “not one of their serfs /peasants” and free to travel (and leave) without your lord’s consent.

        How far we’ve come…

    2. It has a microchip in it. Plus bureaucrats are really expensive to employ.

  3. There’s a Ray Bradbury story called “The Flying Machine” in which the emperor sees a man flying in a kite, soaring free as a bird high in the sky, and he calls the man to him and has him executed and his flying machine burnt. The emperor knows that the man has created something of beauty and wonder, but he also knows that it would be just a matter of time before some other man turned the machine into a weapon of war.

    And so it is with government and anything government does – no matter how noble or necessary the purpose it sooner or later leads to a boot stomping in a face.

  4. American voters and their representatives have always rejected the idea of National I.D.

    Unless you tell them it is like e-Verify, then they’ll be for it… Until they realize e-Verify IS like a National I.D., except much worse. Then they won’t like it, either.

  5. Back in the 1980s, some states didn’t even have photo driver’s licenses. I remember bc I was with my brother and a friend of his from NJ who had just turned 21. We were at a ball game and my brother asked his friend to get him a beer, but they wouldn’t sell it to him bc there was no photo on his license.

    1. I was in the Marines, and my home state drivers license was about to expired. I renewed it and it had “Valid without photo” in place of the photo.

  6. All I can think of with all the focus on ID’s for everything is the line “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause”.

    And the mass of Americans have been clamoring for this for at least 30 years (that I have watched) since Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

    Time for a drink.

  7. Yeah. You old folks really screwed the pooch on this one. Thanks for that.

  8. I just renewed my wisconsin ID, and they had that real id bullshit plastered all over the walls; but thankfully it wasn’t required. It will be after 2020 which honestly I’m just raging against an unstoppable machine for no personal reason other than “will not volunteer”.

  9. A co-worker here in Iowa renewed his driver’s license recently and decided to get the ‘gold star’ license so he wouldn’t have to do it again in 2 years (he travels a lot). He had to provide two forms of proof of address from two different ‘financial institutions’ and two forms of personal ID (he did birth certificate and passport). Plus it costs more than your typical license. It was kinda funny because he is one of those people that says, ‘I don’t believe in conspiracy theories but…’ so I thought he would be kinda skeptical. His lefty bias has him nice and compliant though. Funny too that his credit card has been ‘hacked’ at least 5 times these last few years and Russians/Chinese keep trying to ‘hack’ his ebay/paypal. But why don’t you go ahead and just cough up your information to be stored in some ‘secure’ federal/state database?

  10. Ini memiliki microchip di dalamnya. Ditambah birokrat sangat mahal untuk dipekerjakan.

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