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Debate: Identity cards

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Should governments introduce identity cards and require each citizen to carry one?

Background and context

In many countries, such as Hong Kong or France, it is normal for citizens to carry an national identity card. In most cases this must be shown to a policeman or other government official when they ask. In other countries, such as the UK, USA, Canada and Australia, national identity cards have only been issued in times of war. Many people in such countries believe that being made to carry and show an identity card goes against their rights to privacy. How this issue is debated will therefore differ from country to country. In some countries the argument is over whether to bring in identity (ID) cards. In others the debate is over whether they should be scrapped. In recent years the debate over ID cards has changed for three reasons. Firstly, the attacks of September 11 2001 have led people to call for more security measures, including identity cards. Secondly, increasing immigration has led to calls for ID cards to screen out and catch illegal migrants. These are some of the reasons given by the UK government for its plans to introduce ID cards over the next few years. These will be voluntary at first, but later everyone will have to carry one. The third change is that technology now allows vast amounts of personal data to be stored on a small plastic “smartcard”. This could include details of unique personal features - called biometric indicators - which would allow the identity of the cardholder to be checked by a scanning machine. The UK’s planned ID card scheme will involve such biometric data, and the USA says that the passports of those wishing to enter the United States must soon include biometric data. Countries such as France and Hong Kong which already have ID cards are also changing them to smartcards with biometric details.[1]

Contents

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Identity: Would identity cards make it easier for individuals to identify themselves to authorities?

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Yes

  • Identity cards would make providing proof of identity easier: Each man, woman or child has a unique identity - their body, face, mind and personality are not quite like anyone else’s. For this reason knowing who you are and being able to prove it are basic human rights. Owning an identity card makes showing who you are much easier, and should therefore be welcomed.[2]
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No

  • Identity cards are an attack by governments on privacy and basic freedoms: Why should we be required to prove who we are all the time? Don’t we have the right to be left alone by the government? Making everyone carry such a card suggests that we are in some way owned by the state. Identity cards are a tool of suspicious dictatorships, not of modern liberal democracies.
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Fighting terrorism: Would the introduction of identification cards help fight terrorism?

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Yes

  • Introducing identity cards would help prevent terrorism: If police officers and immigration officials can check up on people behaving oddly, then they will be able to prevent bombings and other terrorist attacks. The world has changed since 9/11 and we need to give up some of our freedoms in order to keep our society safe. Having to carry a little piece of plastic is a small price to pay for greater security.[3]
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No

  • Identity cards will not stop terrorism: Many of those guilty of terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and the Madrid bombing were in the country completely legally, and were unknown to the police. The danger is that bringing in cards will create a phony sense of security. If everyone thinks the cards make them safer, they will relax their security measures and make it easier for terrorists to strike. We should also realise that our enemies want to force us to change the way we live. Scrapping age-old rights by introducing identity checks would be a victory for terrorism.[4]
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Crime: Would ID cards help reduce crime?

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Yes

  • Identity cards will help reduce crime and illegal immigration: Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear if a policeman asks them to identity themselves. But criminals and illegal migrants will find it harder to go about their business. This means that some will be caught who would otherwise walk free. Many others will be deterred (put off) from trying to break the law, or will decide not to enter our country illegally.[5]
  • Cards will tackle new types of crime like fraud and identity theft: Banks, individuals and companies lose billions every year to people who pretend to be someone else. The government and taxpayers lose billions every year in fake welfare claims. Identity cards will make it much easier to prove that someone is who they say they are, and so stop these crimes.[6]
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No

  • Identity cards will do nothing to cut crime and illegal immigration: Even if the cards could not be faked, criminals and illegal migrants will carry on hiding from authority. If they do not come to the attention of the police, then they can’t be asked to identify themselves. And if they are stopped and don’t show a card, what will happen to them? Can’t they just say that they have lost or forgotten it? Huge numbers of law-abiding citizens are bound to forget their cards every day - should they be arrested on the off chance that a few people are guilty of a real crime?[7]
  • Cards won’t stop fraud or identity theft: Such crimes are now carried out online without any need to show yourself in person. And welfare fraud doesn’t involve people pretending to be someone else. It involves real people lying about their situation - for example, claiming they are too sick to work, or that they have no job when they are working illegally. Instead these cards put our very identities at risk. Because they contain so much personal information they will replace many different types of existing identification. For example, driving licenses, library cards, entry passes, membership cards, welfare cards and even bank cards. Imagine losing such a powerful piece of plastic! You would become a non-person, unable to live your life until you can get a new card.[8]
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Security: Would identity cards be harder to fake and more secure?

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Yes

  • Identity cards will be impossible to fake. Modern technology means that we can have smart cards, which include biometric data. These are records of unique natural features which only we alone possess, such as facial images, eyeball scans, voice patterns, fingerprints and even DNA. An official with a biometric reader can quickly check that the person holding the card is really the rightful owner.[9]
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No

  • Biometric science is still very unreliable: Readers are not very accurate and so lots of innocent people will end up in trouble with the authorities. We would have to be 100% sure the central database of everyone’s biometric details can’t be hacked into and changed. And no one agrees what the best biometric system is anyway. Most of all, criminals have always found a way to beat the system, so we shouldn’t imagine this one will be different.
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Easier? Would life be easier and more hassle-free if we had identity cards?

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Yes

  • Life will be easier for all of us if we have identity cards: At the moment we all carry many different cards and papers in fat wallets or purses. But one smart card can carry all this information and more. It can replace all our cards, identifying us everywhere we go - it could even be charged up with money or act as a train pass. And if we are in an accident or fall suddenly ill, a smart card with our medical details on it could save our life.[10]
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No

  • Identity cards will make life harder for all of us: We will be expected to carry a card at all times - even on the beach, or while exercising, or in a nightclub. And if we can’t show one when asked, we will be punished. There is also a real danger that government powers will be abused. In many countries where identity cards have to be carried and shown on request, the police use this as an excuse to harass members of ethnic minorities.[11]
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Costs: Will identity cards be overly costly?

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Yes

  • Identity cards will cost money, but so do passports, driving licenses and all the other cards we carry at the moment: Having only one smart card will save money over time. The scheme will also save us all money by reducing crime, welfare fraud, illegal immigration, etc.[12]
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No

  • Introducing an identity card scheme will be very costly - estimates in the UK run into the billions. Not only is this taxpayers’ money which could be spent on better things, governments are also planning to make us pay for our own cards. In other words we will be charged for losing some of our freedoms. Nor do we believe that the scheme will pay for itself over time.[13]
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Yes

  • Identity cards are necessary because the United States will soon require biometric passports for anyone wishing to visit the USA: This means countries outside the USA will have to change their passport systems anyway, so we might as well turn it into an all-purpose biometric smart card which has other benefits.[14]
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No

  • Governments shouldn’t blame the USA for their plans to bring in identity cards: It is not even clear that the United States would accept such a card as a valid passport. This means we could easily end up paying for both anyway. As current tough visa rules have already made traveling to the USA very difficult, their tourism, business travel and university recruitment are all suffering. As demanding biometric passports will further damage the US economy, it is quite likely that their government will change its mind on the issue anyway.[15]

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