Should the U.S. adopt a national ID card system?

Many countries issue national ID cards. Post-9/11 security concerns have prompted a debate about whether the U.S. should too.

By Jay Stanley, Nicholas D. Kristof

debate layout

Adopting a national ID card system would significantly increase our security with a negligible cost in freedom.

Many people oppose this. But more than 100 nations have some kind of national ID card. And we're already moving toward a government ID systemusing driver's licenses and Social Security numbers to prove who we arebut they neither protect our privacy nor stop terrorists. Instead, they promote identity theft.

At least seven of the September 11 hijackerssome living in Maryland hotelsmanaged to get Virginia ID cards or driver's licenses, which can be used as identification when boarding planes. Americans routinely travel to and from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean with just a driver's license.

Some U.S. officials privately fret that security may depend on a harried immigration officer in Maine who is handed a forged North Dakota driver's license. A recent undercover federal study underscored the concern: Using off-the-shelf materials, investigators were able to forge documents that were then used to get driver's licenses in seven states and the District of Columbia. The forgeries worked in each place where they were attempted.

So why not plug this hole with a standardized, hard-to-forge national ID card/driver's license that would have a photo, a fingerprint, and a bar code that could be swiped to check whether the person is, for example, a terror suspect who should not be allowed onto a plane? We could simultaneously reduce identity theft and make life tougher for terrorists

Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times columnist

National ID cards would not protect Americans from terrorism, and would hurt our privacy.

ID cards would not overcome the biggest obstacle to preventing attacks: identifying terrorists before they strike. Only two of the 19 September 11 attackers were on an FBI watch list; the rest probably would have been given IDs. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh would have had an ID. The fact is, ID cards can't distinguish between good guys and bad guys.

Bad guys will get false IDs. There are always counterfeiters who can fake documents and corrupt government workers who will sell real IDs for big bribes. And to get our new IDs, we will have to present other documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards, which are easily faked.

National IDs could foster new forms of discrimination and harassment of anyone who looks or sounds foreign. They could be subjected to constant identity checks, and failure to carry their ID cards could become a reason for search, detention, or arrest.

And while a national ID card system wouldn't make us safer, it would jeopardize our privacy. As more places incorporate the ID card into their security or payment systems, we might have to present our IDs at office buildings, gas stations, stores, highway tolls, and buses. And at each stop, we'll be recorded.

The way to stop terrorism is investigating groups like Al Qaeda, not by trying to identify and track everyone in America. The government requires us to get a license to drive a car. That makes sense. But should we need a license to leave our home?

Jay Stanley
American Civil Liberties Union

  • Subjects:
    Social Studies