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Steer clear of national ID card

Knight Ridder Newspapers | June 15 2005

The government agent quickens his step, eyeing his subject with great suspicion.

"Your papers, please," he asks, extending a hand to accept a government-issued identification card.

Surreal? A scene from a movie?

Maybe. And then again, maybe not.

The United States continues to hedge closer toward the idea of a national identification card with recently passed legislation.

First came the intelligence reform legislation. Most recently, passage of the REAL ID Act upped the ante.

Both bills contained provisions mandating national regulations for driver's licenses and other forms of identification.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who helped craft the intelligence reform legislation, is among those who insist a national ID card is not in the works. Durbin rightly realizes the fear a national ID card ignites.

Some scenarios - government officials being able to note your every move by scanning cards from a distance - sound pretty much like conspiracy theory. But the technology exists, so such changes should not be undertaken lightly.

The initial problem is that driver's licenses have gone far beyond their intended use in society. Driver's licenses are used to board planes, open bank accounts, rent cars, and to prove identity in too wide of a variety of places and situations. So tinkering too much with driver's licenses is the fastest route toward establishing a national identification card.

A not completely unfathomable fear is what will be done with all of the information gathered, some sort of Big Brother national database.

At the very least, too many changes should not be adopted unwittingly. Especially under the misguided premise that making driver's licenses more standard state-to-state will necessarily protect the country from terrorism.

As with so many recent calls for government reform, this one originated with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Sept. 11 hijackers did use driver's licenses as part of their scheme to move about the country. They clearly took advantage of the ease of movement that is a hallmark of life in America.

They did not however, have 63 driver's licenses among them. Immigrant advocates have thankfully nixed that myth in recent months. The hijackers had 13 licenses among them, many legally obtained.

Seven of the 19 hijackers did have driver's licenses they fraudulently obtained. They took advantage of some lax standards in Virginia that have since been rectified.

But the hijackers didn't need the driver's licenses to board the planes. They had foreign passports.

The hijackers should have been caught long before they were handed driver's licenses. Attempting to track people after they have been allowed into the country quickly becomes problematic.

One of the best defenses against terrorism is closer scrutiny when people first enter the country. That approach also ensures less disruption to U.S.-born citizens, those who have been naturalized and legal residents.

Which brings this back around to the idea of making driver's licenses more secure.

Some reforms are called for. States widely differ in what documents they require to issue a driver's license. Some states are too lax.

The reforms Congress authorized also call for standardizing security features.

Yet some states are rightly worried that Congress has gone too far; taking away an individual state's rights to decide who can get a license.

Also noted is the fact that when governments create a needed document, they also create a black market for that document.

Colorado had to fight that battle recently. More than 200 licenses were revoked after it was alleged that two state workers charged $2,500 to illegally issue licenses for tractor-trailers and other large vehicles.

Americans do not need changes in driver's licenses that will ultimately trounce privacy. Especially if the efforts do not make the country one bit safer from terrorism.



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911:  The Road to Tyranny