An identity document is a piece of documentation designed to prove the identity of the person carrying it. Unlike other forms of documentation, which only have a single purpose such as authorizing bank transfers or proving membership of a library, an identity document simply asserts the bearer's identity. If an identity document is in the form of a small standard-sized card, such as an ISO 7810 card, it is called an identity card.
Types of identity cards
Modern identity cards bear little resemblance to the traditional "photograph on piece of cardboard" and are often hi-tech smartcards capable of being swiped and read by computer.
Where the identity card is issued by the State, it asserts a unique single civil identity for a person, thus defining that person's identity purely in relation to the State. New technologies allow identity cards to contain biometric information, such as photographs, face, hand or iris measurements, or fingerprints.
Other information typically present on the cards — or on the supporting database — includes full name, parents' names, address, profession, nationality in multinational states, blood type and Rhesus factor.
Laws usually limit who is authorized to require an identification (for example limiting it to police, immigration officers etc), though practice usually broadens the range to many public and private entities: for example, a shopkeeper or cashier may request an ID document to be shown by a client paying with a credit card or cheque. Similarly, in circumstances where law enforcement can legally ask for identification, not being able to show an ID document, though legal, may result in being taken to a police station for further identification, depending on the jurisdictions. This can lead to functionality creep whereby carrying a card becomes de facto if not de jure compulsory.
In many cases, other forms of documentation such as a driver's license, passport, or Medicare card serve a similar function, identifying the bearer in a variety of contexts. However, possession of these documents is typically optional from a legal point of view.
Not carrying a required identity card can be beneficial for people who wish to avoid detection, such as innocent citizens who value their privacy. It may also help in some illegal dealings; for instance, in certain countries, the procedures for deporting illegal immigrants whose age, identity and/or nationality cannot be formally established are more complex than those for whom they can be readily ascerted, giving the illegal immigrant more time to prepare his or her defense.
Arguments for and against identity cards
State-issued compulsory identity cards are a source of great controversy. Some people regard them as a gross infringement of privacy and civil liberties, whilst others regard them as uncontroversial.
Opponents of identity cards point out that totalitarian governments issue identity cards to their populations, and that they have been used oppressively by many governments. They point out that the issuing of unique biometric identities was taken to its logical conclusion within living memory by the Nazis, when they tattooed unique KZ- numbers on the arms of people taken to be processed by the Final Solution. (see ka-tzetnik). More recently, the apartheid-era government of South Africa used pass books as internal passports to oppress that country's black population; see freedom of movement. See also propiska (Soviet Union).
Proponents of compulsory identity cards regard these criticisms as paranoid, and regard identity cards to be a useful administrative tool that will increase government efficiency and cut down on crime. Some of them use a simplistic argument which is often deployed against privacy advocates: "if you are against it, then you must have something to hide". This argument is considered by opponents to be simplistic and they would argue it is easily defeated .
Supporters of compulsory ID cards also point that if the State doesn't issue identity cards, private companies will require equivalent documents such as the driver license which are not totally suited for identity purposes.
A properly designed and implemented state-run card system may enable easier and cleaner identification among private instances. A badly designed and implemented system would be worse than useless.
Some opponents have characterised vocal proponents of identity cards as social conservatives who wish to control the population tightly. They point out that extensive lobbying for identity cards has been undertaken in countries without compulsory identity cards by IT companies who will be likely to reap rich rewards in the event of an identity card scheme being implemented.
Economic and social liberals generally regard identity cards as a bad thing, on the principle that if society already works adequately without them, they should not be imposed by government, on the principle that "the government that governs best, governs least".
Some nations require the card to be carried "at all times". This is often impractical and can lead to arbitrary requests from card controllers (such as the police). Even where there is no legal requirement to carry the card, functionality creep can quickly lead to de facto compulsion to carry.
Identity cards in Britain
Main article: British national identity card.
Compulsory identity cards were first issued in the United Kingdom during World War I, and abandoned in 1919. They were re-introduced in World War II, but were abandoned seven years after the end of that war, in 1952, due to widespread public resentment culminating in a court case of Willcock v Muckle, where Clarence Henry Willcock refused to supply his card after being stopped by a policeman for a routine driving infraction. Although he lost the case, the court concurred with his view that identity cards had become inappropriate.
Nevertheless, several Home Secretaries have since proposed reintroducing identity cards, under various pretexts and, in 2003, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett stated that the British government intends to introduce a national identity card scheme based on biometric technology, together with a database to track the resident population, to be made compulsory by 2013. To that end, the Identity Cards Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on November 29, 2004.
Identity cards in the United States
There is no national identity card in the United States of America. All legislative attempts to create one have failed due to tenacious opposition from libertarian and conservative politicians, who regard the national identity card as the mark of a totalitarian society.
In the absence of one, government agencies and businesses have had to improvise with a clumsy patchwork of documents.
The birth certificate
The birth certificate is the initial identification document issued to an individual at birth by the local hospital on behalf of the state and county in which they were born.
The Social Security card
This document is usually issued upon the request of a baby's parents by the Social Security Administration. The parents customarily file such a request soon after birth to ensure issuance of a Social Security number. Then they can report the baby to the Internal Revenue Service as a dependent.
The SSN was originally intended to ensure accurate reporting of payroll contributions so that a employee's Social Security benefits could be adjusted accordingly, and then the employee could claim their benefits upon retirement.
In the absence of a national identity card, the Social Security number has become the de facto national identifier for tax and credit purposes. In turn, the rampant epidemic of identity theft in recent years has led to frequent (and currently unsuccessful) public demands for a national identity card.
Many organizations, universities and corporations used to borrow SSNs to uniquely identify their customer or student populations, but have bowed to public demand that the SSN be reserved to government and credit purposes. Instead, they assign their own unique numbers to persons at first contact and request SSNs only when absolutely necessary.
The driver's license
The de facto official identification card for adults in all states is the driver's license, which must be carried at all times when operating a vehicle and presented to law enforcement officers upon request (while one is in the vehicle). Driver licensing authorities also make special identification cards available for non-drivers like the elderly, young children, and persons stripped of their licenses for a history of bad driving.
49 states have a Department of Motor Vehicles (or an equivalent agency) which issues and manages driver's licenses and identification cards. The state of Hawaii delegates driver licensing to county governments (along with vehicle registration).
Driver's licenses issued in any state are recognized as valid identity documents all other states under a variety of legal principles like comity and the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Many countries also recognize American licenses as valid identity documents.
In addition, when a person engages in bad driving in another state or country, there are Traffic Violations Reciprocity agreements to ensure that bad drivers are appropriately punished for their out-of-state offenses.
Besides state agencies, federal agencies also accept driver's licenses as proof of identity for many purposes, such as boarding an airplane.
The driver's license is often requested by private businesses to verify identity, especially in combination with the use of a credit card or the purchase of alcoholic beverages or cigarettes. The driver's license number is regularly requested by auto insurance companies when one is seeking to insure a vehicle. The companies have real-time access to driving records and can immediately access a person's record to assess the risk of insuring them.
Although most American adults carry their driver's license at all times when they are outside their homes, there is no legal requirement that they must be carrying their license when not operating a vehicle. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states are permitted to require people to say their name when a police officer asks them what their name is. See Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada.
As of 2005, the U.S. Congress is considering a controversial bill that would transform the state-issued driver's license into a true national identification card. This would be done by giving the Department of Homeland Security the power to regulate the design and content of all state driver's licenses, and to require that all of the underlying state databases be linked into a single national database. Critics charge that DHS would be given carte blanche to dictate the content of driver's licenses and to directly manage a frighteningly large amount of information about all Americans. The primary concern is that if another politician as corrupt as Richard Nixon should become President, then such a tyrant could easily abuse the database in order to marginalize and liquidate his opponents.
Americans normally do not obtain passports or carry them regularly unless they are about to travel overseas. Passports are issued by the U.S. Department of State, although applications for passports are most often filed at post offices. The passport is required for boarding international flights, for entering other countries, and for reentering the United States.
Other specialized cards
In the absence of a national identity card, the typical American citizen is forced to carry a bewildering number of documents issued by many different legal entities.
Identity cards worldwide
According to Privacy International, as of 1996, around 100 countries had compulsory identity cards. They also stated that "virtually no common law country has a card".
For the people of Western Sahara, pre-1975 Spanish cards are the main proof that they were Saharaui citizens as opposed to recent Moroccan colonists. They would be thus allowed to vote in an eventual self-determination referendum.
Some Basque nationalist organizations are issuing para-official identity cards (Euskal Nortasun Agiria ) as a means to reject the nationality notions implied by Spanish and French compulsory documents. Then, they try to use the ENA instead of the official document.
Countries with compulsory identity cards
The compulsory character may apply only after a certain age.
Also Egypt, Greece, Malaysia, Thailand, Luxembourg and Portugal.
Western democracies without compulsory identity cards
Australia ("citizenship certificate"), Finland, France, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden (since 2005), and Switzerland have non-compulsory identity cards.
Denmark, Norway and United States, and have no official national identity cards.
Note: As noted above, certain countries do not have national ID cards, but have other official documents that play the same role in practice (e.g. driver's license for the United States). While a country may not make it de jure compulsory to own or carry an identity document, it may be de facto strongly recommended to do so in order to facilitate certain procedures.
Last updated: 08-14-2005 18:57:50