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Op-Ed: A National ID Card Is Not The Answer To Terrorism

by Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman

This article was published in the November 28th edition of ‘Newsday’.

Two weeks ago incoming NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly joined three former NYPD police commissioners in endorsing national identification cards to help fight terrorism. While the idea of issuing a universal ID card that everyone — citizens and noncitizens alike — would have to carry and to produce upon request has the virtue of superficial simplicity, it is unclear as to how it would protect us from the threat of foreign terrorism, and it opens the door to enormous potential problems.

As an initial matter, if terrorists are sophisticated enough to hijack passenger airliners and to fly them into buildings or to manufacture anthrax, it would be naive to think they could not create counterfeit identification cards. Moreover, there is no reason to think that terrorists could not obtain legitimate identification cards. After all, those involved in the September 11th attacks entered the United States legally and thus would have been eligible to receive valid ID cards. And ID cards would not identify foreign visitors planning terrorist acts so long as they maintained their legal status, which would not be difficult. There is thus little reason to believe that the requirement of a national ID card would meaningfully impair sophisticated terrorists.

There is every reason, however, to believe that the requirement of a universal ID card would pose serious problems for the rest of us New Yorkers. First, one need not invoke the image of military police in the streets of New York City demanding to see citizen “papers” to realize that the requirement of a national ID that would have to be carried and produced on demand would fundamentally alter our sense of freedom. While these may be extraordinary times that may require extraordinary measures, a national ID-card system does not begin to yield the security benefits that would warrant consideration of a change of this magnitude.

Second, it is innocent people — not terrorists — who likely would bear the brunt of a national ID card requirement. As an initial matter, a system that allows the police to stop people on demand to check an ID card creates enormous potential for racial profiling, a matter of particular concern here in New York City where we have endured years of strife around profiling.

And who among us has not lost, misplaced, or forgotten an ID card or even had one stolen? Under a national ID-card regime, these common and wholly innocent occurrences could have grave consequences, ranging from Kafkaesque travels through government bureaucracies in search of replacement ID’s to potential arrest and detention.

Finally, what does a national ID system mean in terms of our privacy? If every man, woman, and child in our society is required to provide the government with personal information — continuously updated — that would be entered and maintained in a central database, that would erase virtually any notion that remains of individual privacy in our country. And our experience with social security numbers, which were introduced with the commitment that they would be used only for purposes of administering the social security system, teaches us that over time a national identification card will become central to many aspects of our lives far beyond the realm of national security. While some may be attracted to the notion of a single government-issued card that serves every purpose from a national ID card to a telephone credit card, many people rightfully will not want to the government to be involved in every detail of their lives. That we need to improve security against terrorism is undisputed. Creating a national identity-card system, however, would not enhance our security sufficiently to justify its erosion of civil liberties.

Dunn is a Senior Staff Attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Interim Executive Director.

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