NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

National ID Card Need Not Curtail Liberty

October 17, 2001

An optional national identity card could enhance civil liberties, says law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, while providing better security against terrorism and identity theft. The tradeoff, however, would be less privacy.

For example, electronic tolltags allow drivers at many bridges, tunnels and toll roads to avoid long delays; the device sends a radio signal that records their passage, and they are billed later. The drivers make a tradeoff between privacy and convenience: the toll-takers know more about you, but you save time and money.

With an optional national ID card, people could be allowed to pass through airports or building security more expeditiously, and anyone who opted out could be examined much more closely. This is not so different from what we require today:

  • Photo IDs are already required for many activities, including flying, driving, drinking and check-cashing, and fingerprints differ from photographs only in that they are harder to fake.
  • The vast majority of Americans routinely carry photo IDs issued by state motor vehicle bureaus and other public and private entities.
  • A national card would be uniform, difficult to forge or alter, and it would reduce the likelihood that criminals or terrorists could get lost in the cracks of multiple bureaucracies.
  • The existence of a national card need not change the rules about when ID can properly be demanded by police or private parties.

While the ID card should be optional, says Dershowitz, there is no constitutionally recognized right to anonymity. Privacy and anonymity are not the same. American taxpayers, voters and drivers long ago gave up anonymity without loss of the right to engage in lawful conduct within zones of privacy.

Finally, a national ID card could actually enhance civil liberties by reducing the need for racial and ethnic profiling, which requires stereotyping people by their appearance.

Source: Alan M. Dershowitz (Harvard Law School), "Why Fear National ID Cards?" New York Times, October 13, 2001.


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