Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The End of Privacy

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 8, 2002 --  

When the Dutch supermarket giant Royal Ahold acquired Washington's dominant supermarket chain in 1998, a small but vocal minority quickly got hot under the collar. For years before the acquisition, Giant Foods had bucked the national trend by not requiring customers to show a membership card to get discount prices. When Giant's new owners instituted exactly such a system, die-hard members of Washington's political left were outraged by the privacy implications. The idea of a multi-national company tracking their grocery purchases made them cringe.

Three years later, Washington's left started to waver on the issue of privacy rights, and inched toward the establishment of a national identification card system. Within weeks of the destruction of the World Trade Center, security paranoia had taken over, and American congressmen began discussing what was once beyond discussion.

The push for a national ID has drawn the ire of America's privacy and civil liberties organizations, which fear that the cards could be used to discriminate against immigrants and promote identity theft. The libertarian Cato Institute vehemently opposes a national ID card, claiming it could become a "domestic passport that citizens are required to produce for the most routine daily tasks."1

Those who battle against a national ID are fighting a lost cause. It is not only Giant Foods that uses a customer tracking system, but every other major player in the Washington grocery market. Even the area's predominant pharmacy, CVS, uses a customer discount card to track purchases. The technology necessary to create such a system is now so trivial that run-of-the-mill grocers commonly employ it. The result has been that shoppers often feel the need to carry a half-dozen discount cards everywhere they go.

In fact, the inconvenience of countless identification systems on the Internet has led to an online movement to create a centralized system. Microsoft's existing Passport initiative seeks to create a publicly accessible national online identification system. Other competing systems are under development, often using interchangeable technologies. In the future, such systems will likely be linked with each other at some level, such that many means of identification, whether they originated from the supermarket or the Internet, will become virtually interchangeable.

If such systems remain in private hands, there may be little cause for concern. I, for one, have never been gripped with fear by the idea that Safeway executives know my favorite brand of toilet paper. But once privately owned identification systems are integrated, government systems won't be far behind.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, an organization that represents thousands of issuers of driver's licenses, has recently proposed creating a national system for licenses that uses common standards to link all drivers into the same system.2 The proposal calls for combining biometric information -- such as digitized fingerprints or retina scans -- with the ID cards. The result would be little more than a state-centered version of the federal national ID proposal.

Regardless of whether this plan is adopted, plans to integrate biometrics with the private Internet-based security systems like Passport eventually mean that your hands or eyes will eventually become national IDs. That the associated databases are in private hands may be of little consequence, assuming that the government will have as much access to the systems as commercial customers.

People who bemoan the loss of privacy are refusing to face the reality of today's world. You can no longer assume that your actions will be private, unless you go out of your way to ensure anonymity. Instead of fighting plans for a national ID, civil libertarians should accept the fact that government cannot be kept from the commonplace technology that allows it to identify us. Tomorrow's battle is to restrain government from abusing its power to know who we are.


New York Times, Upgraded Driver's Licenses Are Urged as National ID's, January 8, 2002

Cato Institute TechKnowledge, National ID Cards: New Technologies, Same Bad Idea, September 28, 2001