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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.

Argument #1


Past abuse of "identity cards" may have colored pubic opinion. We should instead think of them as 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. New electronic tools make access control much more practical than before. 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 As Lincoln warned: "The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly".


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.

Argument #2


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.

Regarding convenience, new technologies need not be in "card" form. New data devices can be embedded in wearable, water-resistant objects, including bracelets, rings, pendants, etc.


Inconvenient. 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?

Argument #3


Benefit to the user. Modern smart-card technology can digitally encode a great deal of important information about the user, for example their driving license details, club memberships, medical record. Not only will this remove the current need to carry lots of separate cards, as most people do at present, it could also save their life in a medical emergency.


Open 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.

Argument #4


The phrase "identity card" engenders unwarranted fear. One's identity is not the access keys one possesses. 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.


Many law-abiding people choose to reinvent themselves under new identities for a wide range of reasons. It is also demeaning to be reduced to a series of data on a card, depersonalising transactions and suggesting that the government fears its own people and has to seek to control them.

Argument #5


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.

Moreover, key-holding devices can use biometrics ONLY for accessing the set of keys inside. 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.


Dangers of forgery. 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.

Argument #6


Though ID cards are sometimes cited as tools for ferreting out illegal aliens, that seems wasteful and counterproductive. 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, that 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.


The problem of illegal immigration is exaggerated and in itself controversial; 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.



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

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