Back to All Testimony

Testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration on the NYC Identification Card

Testimony of Johanna Miller on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration on the New York City Identification Card (Intro 253)

April 30, 2014

The New York Civil Liberties Union respectfully submits the following testimony regarding the Council’s consideration of Intro. 253, which would authorize creation of the New York City Municipal Identification Card.

With 50,000 members and supporters, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is the foremost defender of civil liberties and civil rights in New York State and a longstanding advocate for the rights of immigrants across New York State. We are also prominent advocates for protecting individuals’ privacy from government intrusion and unnecessary risk.

The City Council’s proposal to create a local identification card holds great promise for New Yorkers who lack personal identification or are unable to obtain it. Young people, the elderly, undocumented immigrants, the homeless, and transgender people face challenges in obtaining traditional identification documents that accurately reflect their residence and identity.

The New York City ID (NYC ID) will remove some of the steepest barriers by permitting a wide range of documentation to be used as evidence of a person’s identity and residence. The broad support for this legislation in the advocacy community is evidence of how imperative it is for our city. The NYCLU supports creating a NYC ID that can enhance quality of life for all New Yorkers, but we caution the Council and the administration about threats to personal privacy and about ensuring the ID truly is accessible and attractive to everyone.

I. Benefits of NYC ID
We thank the City Council and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs for carefully considering how to make the NYC ID as useful and attractive as possible to a wide range of New Yorkers. The benefits of carrying a government identification card are wide-reaching: it simplifies interactions with various government agencies and facilitates private exchanges such as obtaining employment, receiving deliveries, purchasing prescription drugs, and engaging in banking and real estate transactions. Enhancing the card with other external benefits, such as access to Parks facilities and discounts at New York City cultural institutions will serve to attract a large and diverse pool of participants, ensuring the ID is safe and functional for all users. It is of utmost importance that NYPD officers be trained to recognize, verify, and accept the NYC ID as proof of identity and residence. The first order of business for police officers in many street stops is to ask the person for ID. While there is no legal obligation to carry or present identification, a lack thereof can prolong a police encounter because the police might use lengthy alternative methods to verify that the person does not have an outstanding arrest warrant. Though it would be unlawful, this might include taking the person to the precinct. With the NYC ID, New Yorkers who are otherwise without photo identification can choose to avoid such a lengthy and complicated interaction with police.

Our recommendation for the Council is to ensure the ID is accepted by all city agencies. By including this requirement in the statutory language, the Council is ensuring that the NYC ID will outlive the current administration. We urge the City to work with the police department to ensure that all officers are trained on the NYC ID. Further, we encourage the Council and the administration to work with private institutions to ensure widespread acceptance and broad appeal to make the NYC as functional as possible.

II. Risks of NYC ID
Along with benefits, the NYC ID program has the potential to create serious risks for New Yorkers, and we commend the City Council for designing legislation that protects against these risks to the maximum extent possible. The NYCLU’s primary concern is for the protection of NYC ID applicants’ private, personal information. Closely linked with making the NYC ID appealing to broad communities is the City’s promise that people’s private information will not be entered into a database or shared with third parties. The best way to guarantee this level of protection, particularly when future administrations will inherit this program, is to prohibit retention of foundational documents. We applaud the Council for its legislation that prohibits retention of sensitive documents in conjunction with this program.

The foundational documents required to prove identity and residence to obtain an NYC ID are some of the most sensitive and private documents that people have in their possession. Passports, birth certificates, government benefit cards, social security and tax ID numbers, pay stubs, bank statements, and public school records are all permissible foundational documents under this bill. They are also the documents that people take the greatest care to protect and preserve from disclosure to third parties, including family members and close friends.1 It is essential that the city takes maximum care in preserving the confidentiality and privacy of these documents.

New Yorkers are protective of their private information, and with good reason. Revelations about the NSA’s domestic spying program and public outrage over the New York State Education Department’s contract with data servicer InBloom2 speak loudly to the public’s wariness about government abuse of privacy rights. In 2007, the NYCLU uncovered the NYPD’s extensive database of all individuals subjected to a stop and frisk— their names, addresses, gender and other information—even for individuals who were innocent of all crimes. The Council must guard against creating any program that paves the way for expanding privacy intrusions.

We commend the Council for prohibiting the City from retaining the documents required to obtain an NYC ID. Retaining these documents in hard copy or digital format creates a completely unnecessary risk of disclosure, including the threats of identity theft, hacking, data mining by government or private entities, inappropriate or inadvertent disclosure under open records laws, and access by law enforcement agencies including the NYPD and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Retention of such documents would require the city to respond to voluminous record requests —even when those requests can be legally rejected.

Even where privacy exemptions exist, there is no guarantee that records access officers will consistently and properly comply with the law regarding disclosure of private information. The NYCLU has often received responses to FOIL requests that ignore statutory privacy exemptions under the Freedom of Information Law, failing to redact information that should be protected, either by mistake, carelessness, or ignorance of the law. The judgment of individual records officers should not be the only protection between a person’s social security number and an unscrupulous requestor.

This threat is not abstract. In New Haven, Connecticut, anti-immigrant activists filed records requests for information on that city’s municipal ID holders, indicating that they wished to provide the information to federal immigration authorities. New Haven officials defeated the request in court, but only after a judge acknowledged the safety implications for immigrant communities besieged by vigilante enforcers.

The real and immediate threat of exposure created by such a request would sharply damage the broad appeal of the municipal ID program that is so necessary for its success. This risk would surely affect the willingness to participate of both New Yorkers with access to other identification programs, and those for whom this program is the only option. A single high-profile request for records will be enough to scare away many potential applicants.
Our recommendation for the Council is to explicitly prohibit the retention of foundational documents provided by NYC ID applicants.

III. Training and Administration
The City has suggested that there may be a tension between making the NYD ID widely available through various government “storefronts,” and maintaining confidence that the employees administering the program will be adequately trained to assess the veracity of foundational documents. This is not a legitimate reason for retaining foundational documents, but rather suggests a lack of commitment to the proper training of the individuals who will administer the program. Government employees who do not receive the training required to identify questionable documents will most likely also lack the training needed to treat transgender, homeless, and undocumented applicants with dignity, humility, and respect. This is essential for the success of this program.

Our recommendation is that the city should not move forward without committing to properly training every employee who will receive NYC ID applications. If availability must be reasonably limited in order to ensure that New Yorkers interact with appropriately trained professionals, the city must err on the side of training—to both protect the privacy and preserve the dignity of all applicants.

We thank the Council for its work on this important program, and its proper focus on limiting the privacy risks faced by applicants. We look forward to working with the City to make a safe, secure, and meaningful NYC ID a reality.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union