It's All in the Cards
"Can I see your ID, citizen?"Get used to the sound of that phrase: A rider attached to the federal budget authorization act for fiscal year 1997 will mandate the use of standardized driver's licenses and nondriver state ID cards -- obtainable only upon the disclosure and verification of one's Social Security number -- for identification purposes at all federal agencies by Oct. 1, 2000, an action that civil libertarians believe is one more step toward creating a national ID system.The amendment, an anti-illegal-immigration measure that was attached to the Î97 budget after being vetoed by President Clinton as a stand-alone bill, gave the U.S. Department of Transportation the responsibility of defining the new license format. In a public notice last month, the DOT recommended that states place Social Security numbers on driver's licenses in either printed or electronic form. States may opt out of that requirement by collecting applicants' SSNs and storing them in a database. In either case, state licensing bureaus will have to verify the numbers with the Social Security administration. If a state were to decide not to comply with the new rules, its residents would find themselves cut off from federal government services, as their driver's licenses and other forms of ID would be considered invalid.Since its creation, Social Security Administration policy has stipulated that the SSN should not be used for identification purposes outside that agency, but that rule has been paid less and less heed over the years. In recent decades the SSN has evolved into an all-purpose financial identification number, used by banks and credit reporting agencies both as an index number and as an identity verifier -- a practice that undermines the security of any such system, according to data security experts. It is also increasingly required by insurance companies and health care providers. The SSN has thus become the key to Americans' most sensitive personal information."Individual freedom is under attack in our country today, consciously and unconsciously, from a number of directions," said New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-Saugerties). "All of this stuff is increasingly documenting and computerizing the activities of American citizens and giving more and more people access to everything that we do. We are becoming like insects in amber, just subjects for examination and scrutinty."Hinchey has signed on as a cosponsor of H.R. 4217, the "Freedom and Privacy Restoration Act," a bill that would repeal the ID provisions of the anti-illegal-immigration rider and forbid any federal agency from requiring citizens to show ID issued by any other federal agency. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Bob Barr (R-Ga.), was referred to the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight last week.Fourteen states, including New York, already require Social Security numbers on driver's license applications, and another 19 request it but don't require it; seven states actually use SSNs as driver's license numbers, though only three of those require them. Reasons for recording SSNs vary widely, from welfare fraud prevention to check verification to, in New York's case, tracking parents who owe child support.While the DOT has been developing its specs in compliance with the ID law, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been in a muddle over how to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which requires the creation of a national medical database indexed by a "health care identification number." The department began holding hearings around the country this week on a range of proposals, from the already widely used SSN to the creation of a system from "biometric" information such as fingerprints and genetic sequences. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy-issues clearinghouse, noted that the SSN or a derivative of it "could be used to link medical records with other information, such as employment and financial information, currently indexed with the SSN."Opponents of national IDs point to police abuse, propagation of mistakes and the hassles of replacing lost ID cards in countries that have instituted such systems. According to British-based group Privacy International, the governments of Japan, France and Greece have been accused of using ID cards for discriminatory purposes. In addition, the more personal information is integrated through the use of common ID numbers, the easier it is to gain access to that information illicitly -- or through ordinary commercial channels."Just as the original restrictions on the use of the Social Security card have been all but eliminated, limits on a national ID number or card would be ignored or legislated away," stated the American Civil Liberties Union in a position paper on national IDs. "There would be an irresistible temptation to use the data for purposes for which it was never intended, including government surveillance."According to spokesman Michael Sullivan, Congressman Paul introduced his bill because the new ID law gives the federal government the power to reach into citizens' private lives far beyond its constitutional purview."If you go to get on an airplane, you will be required to show your driver's license," Sullivan said. "If your driver's license is not the nationally approved driver's license, you can't get on that airplane. If you try to register for your Medicare or Social Security benefits, which you are entitled to receive, if you don't have your federally approved driver's license in hand, you can't qualify. There's also indication that this will be tied to a medical ID as well; without this ID card you wouldn't even be able to get medical care. This isn't some goofy gee-what-if, this is what is actually in the law. And it passed without a word of debate. We're now finding out about it a mere 15 months from the date of implementation."Keith Ammann is an associate editor at Metroland newsweekly in Albany, N.Y., where this story first appeared.