Page 7

vacy, cost versus functionality, and so on) need to be carefully considered.

Many other countries have nationwide identity systems, which they often use for such diverse purposes as proof of age (e.g., Belgium), proof of citizenship, and for generating electronic signatures (e.g., Finland). In the United States, citizens' concern for civil liberties, their historic association of ID cards with repressive regimes, and states' rights concerns have discouraged movement toward a governmentally sanctioned nationwide identity system.3Additionally, because the country was settled by immigrants, a significant fraction of whom wanted to escape just such practices, many U.S. record systems were intentionally designed not to gather linking data.4Further, it appears that laws requiring individuals to show proof of legal status or citizenship result in increased discrimination based on national origin and/or appearance.5The human rights issues that could arise, such as increased demands for documentation from those who look or sound “foreign” and the deterioration of living and working conditions for aliens, are substantial.6Clearly, an examination of the legal and social framework surrounding identity systems, while outside the scope of this report, would be essential.7

Although discriminatory acts such as those alluded to above might be constrainable by law, the presentation of identifying documents—driver's licenses and credit cards, for example—is being demanded today in more

3The Electronic Privacy Information Center has compiled a set of resources and reports on the topic at its Web site, <http://www.epic.org/privacy/id_cards/>.

4An example that frustrates many genealogists is that U.S. birth certificates usually require identifying the town of birth only for parents born in the United States; for people born elsewhere, the country of birth is sufficient. Generally speaking, the mindset that such things are “no one's business” has deep roots.

5See U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Immigration Reform: Employer Sanctions and the Question of Discrimination, March 1990; Marvin Howe, “Immigration Law Leads to Job Bias, New York Reports,” New York Times, February 26, 1990, p. A1. The GAO report on the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) cites a “widespread pattern of discrimination” resulting “solely from the implementation of IRCA.” Ten percent of employers discriminated on the basis of foreign accent or appearance, and nine percent discriminated by preferring certain authorized workers over others.

6Especially for communities of recent immigrants, there is likely to be significant controversy in shifting to a system that would prohibit or make difficult work and other activities without presentation of an ID. In considering the feasibility and desirability of a particular approach, designers of any such system should be aware of this potential opposition, as well as possible opposition from other segments of the population.

7It would be useful to examine how such systems have worked in other countries, as well as to examine nations where IDs have been proposed but not implemented (such as the United Kingdom).



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement