National ID Cards are On The Way

It was a busy summer for proponents of national ID cards. Terrorism fears have propelled several controversial efforts in countries around the world, making ID cards a global security trend that is gaining momentum, even here in the United States.

Plans for a national identity card got a boost in the U.K. and Australia after the July terrorist bombings in London, although there remains formidable opposition in both nations. Also this summer, the Philippines ignored its own high court and moved ahead with its plan for a single card to be used across the sprawling archipelago as driver’s license, proof of identity and Social Security membership. And in August, Italy followed up on recent legislation mandating electronic ID cards for all citizens and foreign workers by ordering $15 million worth of optical memory cards and equipment from Mountain View, Calif.-based LaserCard Corp.

The Italian cards have an optical memory stripe that will store personal information along with a color picture, fingerprint and an electronic signature; they can also accept a microchip to be used in transactions with government agencies. In the U.K., where momentum in Parliament for a national card had flagged prior to the July Underground attacks, the cards may also include biometrics, though the particulars remain vague.

“The technology is, to a large extent, vaporware,” says Ross Anderson, a Cambridge University professor, and a critic of the idea, who contributed to a high-profile London School of Economics report on the cards that was issued in June. Anderson says that in addition to the push for national ID cards, Britain is using a growing raft of surveillance technology to keep track of people. By 2006, every truck in Great Britain must have a GPS tolling device, and the government hopes to extend that to passenger cars by 2010.

In the United States a law was quietly passed in May that mandates federal standards for driver’s licenses issued by the states, thus creating a de facto national ID card. Congress passed the Real ID Act of 2005 as an amendment to an emergency spending bill for troops in Iraq. The law requires states to verify the citizenship or residency status of anyone applying for a driver’s license by 2008, but does not provide funding for the additional burden that this will impose on state motor-vehicle departments. Virginia Governor Mark Warner has said that license fees could rise from an average of $15 to $100. More paperwork, longer waits—whatever the benefit to national security, a trip to the DMV is sounding drearier than ever.

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