National ID or circles of trust?
by Jon Roland
The recent terrorist attacks have brought calls for a national identification system, which usually takes the form of a national ID card. Some of the proponents say carrying the card would be "voluntary", but this is tergiversation. Having and presenting a social security number is also voluntary, but it has become almost impossible to get work, a loan, or a place to live without offering the number, to be checked by a notoriously unreliable private credit reporting system. Possession and presentation of such an ID does not need to be legally required to be effectively mandatory, as millions of ordinary people, seeking to avoid criticism, will seize on it as a way to do the impossible, which is to reliably screen out persons who are dangerous or uncreditworthy.
The simple fact is that the real terrorists will be able to get the ID cards, if anyone can. It is only the harmless but freedom-loving people, or those who lead independent, unconventional lifestyles, that may have trouble. People will get screened out, but it will be only the wrong people.
People are forgetting that this country has a longstanding system of identification that has worked very well for more than 200 years. It is the system of notaries public, whose job has been to know the persons personally in their communities, so that they can certify their signatures on documents. Such a system is sometimes called "circles" or a "network" of trust. Notaries are appointed who can be trusted to know the persons they say they know.
Traditionally, notaries relied on county governments to support their identification of people, by the issuance of credentials like birth certificates, but such certificates were never intended to be identification cards, and they are no longer recognized by the federal government as ID.
Some now say the traditional notary system is insufficient, that in today's urban society the anonymity of people forces notaries to rely on unreliable identification credentials just like everyone else has to. There is some truth to that, but the solution is for us to break down the barriers of urban anonymity and get to know one another better.
The principal objections to a national ID card are to having them controlled by a central issuing authority, which could abuse the power, and probably would. The proponents of a national ID card issued by the federal government have not been as imaginative about how such a power could be abused as some government operatives are.
The problem is illustrated by some of the movies and television programs that have been released in recent years. For example, The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, in which her character's identification is reassigned to another person, and she is assigned the identification of a wanted criminal. Such a thing is not just anti-government paranoia. A National Identification Bureau could do that kind of thing, and probably would. Who is going to stop them? They're the government. Any power that can be abused will be.
But the government doesn't have to change identification information just to persecute, silence, or intimidate people. It can also use the system to protect its own from accountability under the law. The criminal was a federal agent? What federal agent? Can you identify him? Using what credentials?
So it would be easy to make a national ID card an instrument for either protection, punishment, or political control. Are there any safeguards against that? The answer is no. Not as long as the system were under central control. The only way to avoid abuses is to distribute the identification system among the people, by creating circles of trust.
High-tech ways of doing that have been developed, using public-key encrypted digital signatures, administered by private authentication services, such as Verisign. In principle, we could build on such methods to create a fairly reliable identification system that would be less vulnerable to abuse and terrorism by government itself, but only if the system does not rely on a few such services, such as the credit reporting system which now relies on just three companies. Three, or three hundred, or three thousand such services (there are about 3000 counties in the U.S.) could all be compromised by a tyrannical government. The system would need to rely on networks of people, each with their own digital signatures, verifying the people they know personally. If a problem arose with anyone, it would be possible to trace back along the trail of verifications.
There are, however, two problems with this kind of system. If there was significant liability for persons who verified others, the situation might develop where no one would verify anyone. We have that problem now with job references, where the references are warned by their lawyers not to say anything that might prevent the applicant from getting a job, lest they be sued for libel. As a result, they have become afraid of reporting anything more than that the applicant worked for them and for what period of time.
The second problem is that any such system would severely discriminate against a large part of the society that is not "connected". It would raise the "good ol' boy" system to an legalized institution that would tend to create an underclass of virtual untouchables. Majorities can be tyrannical, too, and not just through the operation of government. We have worked hard for many decades to end racial discrimination. Let's not re-establish a more sinister system of bigotry based on class or connectedness or political or social correctness, mediated by a legally-sanctioned identification system that is open to abuse not just by government but by the emergent mass behavior of millions of individuals. If our nation is to be true to its heritage, it needs to be a good place to live for mavericks.
Again, it needs to be emphasized that none of these identification systems are going to enable us to stop terrorists. The only things that might do that is for all of us, everywhere, to get to know one another better, at the individual, personal level, to watch for threats without becoming a nation of snitches, and to attend the legitimate grievances that many people have that are not being redressed. The most effective countermeasures to violence are sympathetic listening and justice.
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Maintained: Jon Roland of the Constitution Society
Original Date: 2001/10/18 —