NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Issue of National Identification Cards

September 26, 2001

Recent events have renewed speculation over the prospect of adopting a national identification card. Most people use their driver's license for identification purposes. But those are easy to forge -- just as some of the terrorists of September 11 forged their passports.

Civil libertarians oppose the creation of a national identification card, warning that a vast national database might eventually contain reams of information about the comings and goings of law-abiding Americans. Such a database could severely compromise individual freedoms if it fell into the wrong hands.

Here are some other considerations:

  • Experts familiar with the challenge of false IDs say there are 16,000 different types of birth certificates in the U.S. and 242 different types of driver's licenses -- including old and new designs, special licenses for young drivers and other variations.
  • New technologies, such as color laser printers, have made forging driver's licenses simplicity itself -- and forging birth certificates is just as easy.
  • Few airport reservation agents are familiar with out-of-state licenses -- so forgeries often pass.
  • Some states have started embedding in driver's licenses hard-to-copy holograms that are destroyed when youngsters try to insert a substitute photo for inspection by bartenders.

Many proposals for establishing a national identity card involve encoding IDs with biometric identification -- usually a fingerprint or face pattern. But going to such a system in a nation of 280 million individuals would be a daunting task. Experts estimate, for example, that it would take states two-and-a-half years to replace the driver's licenses of just half their people.

Source: William M. Bulkeley, "Hijackers' Passports Highlight Issue of Rampant Fake IDs in U.S.," Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2001.

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