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Debate: Identity Cards

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Should everyone have to carry an identity card?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

The assumptions in this debate will vary from country to country. In some, such as the U.K. identity cards have only ever been a temporary wartime measure and there is considerable resistance to the idea of introducing them, in others they are an accepted fact of life and the controversial debate would instead be whether they should be abolished. In both situations, however, a common assumption would be that if everyone has to have an identity card, they would also have to produce it when asked to do so by those in authority (e.g. police officers, welfare offices), implying that it would need to be carried on the person at all times. The UK is currently (2007) in the early stages of introducing a National Identity Card scheme, with the first biometric ID cards due to be issued to British citizens in 2009. Initially the scheme will be voluntary but it is expected to eventually become compulsory. Canada and Australia are debating similar ideas.

Government/privacy: Would IDs appropriately involve government?


  • Identity cards are a just measure for governments to take to effectively regulate access. Identity cards are like government-issued keys. A key is something one uses to gain access to something. Nobody may demand one present a key; the key is required to get something, not to BE where one already is. As such, the burden of constraining presence in a space should fall to those who wish to limit the space. People in a space should not bear the burden of demonstrating their presence is rightful; people controlling the space should bear the burden of securing it.
  • Improved enforcement of laws with identity cards will help in the analysis and enhancement of laws: In fact, we might now pass a law requiring cars sold here to include electronic readers that require drivers to present a valid license before the car will start. With that in mind, the important issue for our society is not "identity cards", it's the ramifications of the 100% enforcement new technologies make possible. As Lincoln noted: "The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly". In other words, when our laws are enforced 100%, their true colors can be exposed, better analyzed, and laws can be more effectively enhanced or changed.
  • Identity cards could increase the public accountability of various forms of identity. Identity cards and loyalty cards now pervade our private transactions. Large private databases grow, largely unchecked, with only scant accountability requirements. A thoughtful shift toward public forms might allow more public constraint on the collection and resale of personal data individuals would prefer not be published. For example, some retailers now ask customers for their phone numbers, even on cash transactions. Instead of making up such data requests arbitrarily, firms might be asked to assert reasons why they collect certain data.
  • Past abuse of "identity cards" may have colored pubic opinion.


  • Introducing identity cards would be an illiberal measure. It would remove one of the most important rights of any man or woman – the right to be left alone by the state. A widely used identity card would allow the state to monitor closely the movements of its citizens. Issuing identity cards for specific purposes, e.g. driving licenses or welfare claimant cards, is permissible because these are limited and essentially voluntary; a compulsory universal card is not. In wartime such an instrument of state power is justifiable, but to extend this power to the government in peacetime would be an overreaction.
  • Identity cards create too many openings to police abuse. Demanding identity cards be shown is an easy way for police officers to harass minority groups, providing an excuse for more intrusive searches which the law would not otherwise allow. Police are also likely to assume anyone near a crime scene whose card identifies them as having a criminal record must be involved with the offence.
  • Identity cards are contrary to the maxim: "the government that governs best, governs least". It has been argued that identity cards impose a disproportionate burden upon both government and citizens while empowering the executive, which is contrary to the maxim: "the government that governs best, governs least". Some have pointed 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 benefits in the event of an identity card scheme being implemented.
  • Argument: Identity cards have been used oppressively historically. For example, Nazi Germany made use of unique biometric identities by tattooing identification numbers on the arms of concentration-camp detainees. More recently, the apartheid-era government of South Africa used pass books as internal passports to oppress that country's black population. Where religious affiliation or ethnic background is required on ID cards (as used to be the case in Greece), discrimination is enabled. Under some interpretations of Sharia law, apostate Muslims may be sentenced to death. Malaysia's identity cards only state the religion if a person's religion is Islam. This can become a bureaucratic nightmare or even lead to death when a person changes his or her affiliation which in any case should be a private matter of no business to officialdom.
  • Most national ID schemes do not take into account legitimate reasons for concealing identity. Victims of domestic violence, witnesses in criminal investigations and trials, and others, may not want their identity or locations to be widely known. Yet, a national ID scheme would see this information made public.

Convenience: Would identity cards be more or less convenient than the status quo?


  • New technologies make it unnecessary to restrict identification to "card" form, reducing the potential for inconveniences. New data devices can be embedded in wearable, water-resistant objects, including bracelets, rings, pendants, etc.
  • Modern smart-cards could reduce the need for users to carry multiple cards. Technology can digitally encode a great deal of important information about the user, for example their driving license details, club memberships, medical record. This could remove the current need to carry lots of separate cards, as most people do at present.
  • Identity cards would be less physically bulky than passports for verification in banks or at national borders.
  • Identity cards could save lives in a medical emergency. Medical information could be stored on modern ID cards, making it possible for emergency respondents.
  • Identity cards enable fast quick ownership or eligibility verification. For example, when paying with a credit card or cheque, or attempting to buy age-restricted products.


  • It is unreasonable to expect people to carry a specific card on their person at all times - Including presumably at the beach, while dancing at a club, while exercising, etc. Yet failure to produce a card when asked could land perfectly innocent people in trouble with the authorities. Perhaps worse, losing a card which represents your entire existence (driving licence, welfare card, health insurance card, etc. all in one) would create a great deal of trouble. Finally, from what age should cards be issued; are five year-old children to be required to carry them and keep them safe at school and in the playground? Furthermore, a requirement to carry an identity card at all times can lead to the inconvenience of arbitrary requests from card controllers (such as the police). This can lead to functionality creep whereby carrying a card becomes de facto if not de jure compulsory, as in the case of Social Security numbers, which are now widely used as ID.

Identity: Do ID cards help citizens uphold their identity?


  • One's identity should not be linked to access keys such as a driver's license. We should be moving toward independent, separable access keys, so any one key may be retired or revoked without affecting others. For example, a senior whose vision is too poor for driving may still need to cash a check; losing access to driving should not mean losing access to checking.


  • It is demeaning to be reduced to a series of data on an ID card, depersonalising transactions and suggesting that the government fears its own people and has to seek to control them.
  • Many law-abiding people choose to reinvent themselves under new identities for a wide range of reasons. - National ID cards may make this a more difficult step to take for individuals, which may be unfair.

Forgery: Would national ID cards make forgery more difficult?


  • False identification may be reduced where identity cards are required to open a bank account. - Any additional checks on identity where it is critical to financial accounts and transactions would be beneficial.
  • Technology enhanced ID cards would make forgery much more difficult. Modern technology can allow cards to be developed which include mapping of unique biometric features of their owner, e.g. fingerprints, retinal scans, etc., making forging very difficult and a stolen card useless.
  • Key-holding devices can use biometrics ONLY for accessing the set of keys inside, limiting risk of privacy leakage. Those biometrics need not be transmitted across huge, legally and technologically heterogeneous networks; so, the risk of biometric data leakage can be limited to the key-holding device.


  • Single ID cards hold greater incentives for forgery than separate access cards. Perversely, the more important and apparently forgery-proof a card is, the greater the incentive for criminals to find ways to forge them. If cards become widely used and widely trusted, then the rewards for anyone who can find a way to fake them are potentially huge. Governments do not have a monopoly upon electronic research and digital information can be hacked into and tampered with, so there can never be such a thing as a crime-proof card. No country has ever successfully produced a totally unforgeable ID card. Therefore, any increase in ID cards would create greater vulnerabilities to identity theft and fraud.

Crime: Would ID cards help reduce crime?



  • There is little evidence that identity cards will reduce crime. The former UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke conceded that identity cards may only be useful in the identification of bodies in the aftermath of a crime. The facts that the terrorists involved in 9/11 and the London tube attacks did have and would have had identity cards, respectively. As a strong presumption of identity is given in favour of a card holder, the identity card scheme might be an asset to potential terrorists.

Security: Would identity cards enhance national security?



  • Disparate management of ID card databases would be a security vulnerability. The proposed British ID card (see next section) will involve a series of linked databases, to be managed by the private sector. Managing disparate linked systems using a range of institutions and any number of personnel is alleged to be a security disaster in the making. [1]

Illegal immigration: Would ID cards help stem illegal immigration?


  • ID cards could be used as a tool to deny illegal immigrants access to mainstream financial systems. Non-citizens seem centrally to enter in violation of laws for the PURPOSE of participating in financial transactions. If a) all our money was instantly, electronically traceable and auditable, and b) all financial transactions required an access key to participate and to access our financial system, then c) those without access keys could not be paid. Thus the incentive to enter illegally would be removed. Note, this would NOT be the same as making the value of "legal tender" revocable. It would only require that a "financial access key" be presented to gain access to our financial system and conduct a transaction.


  • ID cards should not be directed toward solving illegal immigration, an exaggerated problem. Immigration is generally beneficial to countries, particularly economically, as the provide a substantial work force. Europe needs new workers and few wish to stay permanently. An identity card system would place an illiberal burden upon all European citizens, whereas border checks are seldom very inconvenient for those who choose to travel.

Costs: Would a national ID card be economically sound?


  • Identity cards can increase administrative efficiency. A unified electronic ID card system could make it mush easier and more efficient for governments and companies to interact and perform transactions. This would cut administrative costs substantially.


  • A national ID is unnecessary as other ther forms of documentation have proven adequate. Access documentation such as driver's licenses, passport, or Medicare card serve a similar function on a more limited scale, and thus an ID card is not needed.
  • The cost of introducing and administering an identity card system can be very high. Figures from £30 (US$60) to £90 or even higher have been suggested for the proposed UK ID card. [2]



  • This House would introduce a national identity card
  • This House loves its identity card
  • This House would be a card-carrying member of society

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

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