In 1759 Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." What then, I wonder, would he make of the world in which you and I live today?
More and more we are seeing draconian measures put in place to supposedly safeguard our security. We are repeatedly told of the constant threat from international terrorists, unseen enemies with fanatical motives for obscene acts of mass murder. And with this fear of the unseen enemy, it would seem that the people are willing to sacrifice the liberties history fought to give them to protect the freedom that consumerism has sold them.
In the wake of bombings by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) back in the early nineties, surveillance cameras appeared in vast numbers across Great Britain. It's estimated that the typical Briton is caught on camera somewhere in the region of 300 times a day. But in the grip of fear that they would become the terrorists' next victim many people welcomed the widespread introduction of surveillance cameras that they believed somehow made them safer.
Since those days, however, history has told a quite different story. A recent government study examined the best available data on the effects of closed-circuit television (CCTV) and concluded that the new systems had been "most effective in reducing vehicle crime in car parks" but "had little or no effect on crime in public transport and city-center settings."
After the attacks on America on September the 11th 2001, many new security measures were rushed into law. Nowhere are these measures more apparent than in airports across the world and especially in the United States where airport security was once surprisingly lax.
In November 2004, the British Airport Authority (BAA) started a year-long trial of the Rapiscan Secure 1000, a high tech scanner that scans a person to produce a detailed picture of them effectively naked. In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have also announced their intention to test these 'virtual strip search' machines across many of America's major airports before the end of this year.
Critics of the 'virtual strip search' machine are scathing. ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt says the scanners invade personal privacy. "This leads directly to a surveillance society." But in a cavalier statement to a Senate subcommittee, Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, announced that he wants to employ the technology as soon as possible and doesn't want an "endless debate" over privacy issues.
Chertoff's words of course belittle the very real concerns surrounding the emotive subject of liberty versus security. Precautions have to be taken to protect us, of course, but would it not at least be wise for us to keep a watchful eye on what our governments want to keep a watchful eye on?
On Wednesday, May 11, 2005, President Bush signed into law The Real ID Act (H.R. 418) that could require all Americans to carry a national ID card controlled by the Department of Homeland Security within three years. Without the new national ID card, Americans will not be able to travel on an airplane or train, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, or take advantage of nearly any government service. The card will also likely use a digital storage technology, such as RFID, which means that people carrying the card will be able to be remotely identified at a distance.
The Real ID Act passed under the radar of many Americans mindful of their civil liberties when it was attached to an 82 billion dollar appropriations bill to fund America's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In practical terms, the ID card is likely to be first introduced as an updated driver's license that meets new federal standards. The Real ID Act gives the Department of Homeland Security the power to set these standards. Although precise details of what exactly will be stored on the cards are unclear at this time, early proposals suggest that at minimum the card would contain the owner's name, birth date, sex, ID number, a digital photograph, address, and a "common machine-readable technology" that Homeland Security will decide on. Physical security features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or duplication will also be included.
In addition to the national ID card scheme, the United States plans to issue all visitors with a temporary ID card. This could further inflame the problem of mounting foreign anger at America's hardline approach to security, as well as lead to uneasy political and legal territory. The US Supreme Court in 1966 declared in the United States v. Guest that "freedom to travel throughout the United States has long been recognized as a basic right under the Constitution." Some may also argue that the ID cards infringe a more basic "right to be let alone" which according to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men."
Of course, supporters of the ID cards claim that its provisions will make America safer from terrorists. However, as Noah Leavitt from FindLaw reports, "One of the main reasons America is a target is the perception that it is arrogant, and lacks respect for people beyond our borders. By flouting well-known international norms, the REAL ID Act only exacerbates such a perception."
In 2004 the UK Home Secretary David Blunkett said that "ID cards will bring enormous benefits to us as individuals and as a society." The government curiously dropped the proposed ID card plans just ahead of the recent election, knowing that it was an issue that opposing parties might use against them in the campaign weeks. Of course, after the Labor party was re-elected (in the second-lowest turn-out on record) plans to introduce an ID card in the UK were brought out once more. However, this time they were being re-introduced as a measure to stop identity theft rather than terrorism as fears of identity theft now rank higher than fears of terrorism in the UK.
There are always those who would argue that people with nothing to fear shouldn't fear carrying such a card. "If you've got nothing to hide then what's the problem?" comments one man on an internet discussion. Another states, "If the card is only going to have basic information, then what's the point? Surely it's a hugely expensive waste of time and resources?"
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, notes, "Historically, governments use national ID systems to control populations rather than to protect them... Examples include the apartheid government in South Africa and the East German Stasi [Secret Police]... The phrase 'Your papers, please' is antithetical to traditional American values of privacy and freedom of travel."
Ultimately, as we become ever more reliant on technology, the amount of information gathered about our movements and choices becomes something that we are simply unable to personally control. And while at this stage it might be easy to dismiss a simple ID card as a harmless measure, one must ask oneself exactly where does the line of privacy that shouldn't be crossed lie?