The National ID Card That Isn't, Yet

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A driver's license bar code reading device that reveals the age of the owner

It wouldn't be a national ID card — not really. The Department of Transportation, acting on instructions from Congress, has begun work with states to develop electronically smarter drivers' licenses that can be checked for validity across the country, and that have more than just than that always-awful picture — like a fingerprint or retinal-scan imprint — to match the card to its holder.

So it's more of a national ID system, a linking of Departments of Motor Vehicles — and the records they keep on you — across state lines, with some extra on-card security measures thrown in. For terrorists on the run (and other criminals, too, but nobody worries about them any more) the plan means that a state trooper in California would be able to pull the records of a driver from Georgia — and be certain that those records were the driver's, and not an innocent lookalike he stole the card from.

For the rest of us, this wouldn't be so different than what's already in place. The standardized databases would save the California state trooper a phone call to Atlanta; he'd be able to run a nationwide check from his car. And the smarter cards, "hardened" with biometric data, would make identity theft much trickier, at least in person. (Georgia, incidentally, already uses thumbprints on its drivers' licenses.)

The plan, Congress hopes, will be cheaper and easier to implement, and less likely to incur the talk-show ire of civil libertarians and states' rights purists (the same type who squawked in 1908 when the FBI was born). But the approach is mere stealth — 50 different state ID cards all linked together is pretty much the same as one national ID card, just as all those new quarters are still worth 25 cents each, no matter which state is on the back.

Big Brotherly love?

For some, the real problem with smarter, more centralized ID cards is that they give bureaucrats a better chance to screw up more of your life when you accidentally get put into the Big Computer as, say, a serial flasher. For others, it's that the federal government can punch a few keys and trace your steps. But they can do that already. (Remember when Ken Starr subpoenaed the list of books Monica Lewinsky bought at a D.C. bookstore with an ordinary credit card?) With a nationalized driver's license/ID card — whether it says "New York State" or "United States" — it'll just be easier.

The great leap forward from a longer arm for the law to "1984" will have to be made by the private sector. How well a watchful federal government will actually be able to track its citizens will depend on how many places demand to see your driver's license. Airports already do. So do some supermarkets, if you're buying beer. But what about malls? Movie theaters? Sports stadiums? Banks and their ATMs? If all the places you go demand a swipe to weed out terrorists — and are willing to pay for the technology to do the swiping — then yes, Big Brother could know where you go and what you do while you're there.

Of course, that could make life easier for you too. What if your state/national ID card was your passport as well as your drivers' license? What if you could do your taxes at an ATM — and then withdraw your refund? Or what if your national ID card was your ATM card, and your credit card, and your HMO card and your work ID and the passkey to your maximum-security apartment, all at once? There's the freedom to continue to come and go as you please, in (relative) anonymity, and there's the freedom to carry a dozen different cards and identifications around with you wherever you go.

The real concern

The national ID-card issue to really fight about may be when and whether citizens will be required to carry them. The average American driver's license gets a pretty good workout these days — certainly far more than traffic laws themselves would seem to warrant — but you can only get arrested for driving without one. If the U.S. domestic response to terrorism starts to resemble Zimbabwe's, which passed a law in November making it compulsory to carry ID on pain of fine or imprisonment, well, that's something to worry about.

But until Congress passes a law like that — and until you can't enter a movie theater without the usher checking you for priors — there isn't all that much to get exercised about. Most of the privacy rights — if there really are such things — vulnerable to a nationalized ID card have already been trampled under the wheels of increased security, more efficient law enforcement and better business long ago. Most of them can be regained simply by paying cash — and keeping your fingerprints off the murder weapon.