Tracking You at the Airport:
The Stealth National ID

by David M. Brown

Soon after September 11, the Bush administration declined to endorse a national ID card, though without exactly ruling it out, either.

Since then, the federal government has taken active steps to introduce one, or at least the prequel to one, and with the Administration’s tacit approval. We thus lag behind Japan, which has just imposed a national identification scheme (though not all of Japan’s citizens are very happy or cooperative about it); and perhaps also Great Britain, which, fifty years after backing out of its first attempt to impose a national ID card, seems to be on the verge of imposing one again, and permanently.

The two main avenues to a national identification regime currently being pursued in this country are a "hardening" of the state-issued driver’s licenses, and a "trusted traveler" card to be dispensed to those air passengers who have passed a background check.

We are more familiar with the driver’s license as a means of authorization of movement, because of its original purpose of verifying that the cardholder is competent to drive a vehicle. But in the past several years, at least nominal identification has also been required to board airplanes. And more recently, of course, we have been subjected to even more invasive procedures. So Americans are prepped for the trusted traveler approach also.

At first blush, the trusted traveler card seems less intrusive than a "hardened" driver’s license, and thus has earned a thumbs-up from even purportedly libertarian writers. The idea is that the card would be voluntary insofar as the card is "privately" administered and/or no passenger lacking the card would be prohibited from boarding a plane. Such passengers would merely be subject to more intensive search than those who do have the card. Presumably, anybody who passed the required background check would then be less likely to attempt an act of terrorism.

Robert W. Poole Jr. of the Reason Foundation and Congressman Ron Paul, each considered to be politically libertarian, are among the advocates of such surveillance and screening – even though each has previously staked out positions opposed to the kind of ubiquitous data collection and surveillance that would be entailed by a full-fledged national ID card.

A few years ago, for example, Representative Paul supported repeal of legislation aimed at federalizing the driver’s license (an effort now being revived). More recently, he has admonished his colleagues that "national ID cards are a trademark of totalitarianism that contribute nothing to the security of the American people." In 1995, Poole co-signed an open letter to Congress that opposed the creation of a national worker registry database as a means of combating illegal immigration. "Once a system of information on all Americans is in place," the letter argued, "it will inevitably become ubiquitous in American life, presenting an enormous threat to the privacy and liberty of Americans."

Yet despite their suspicion of government-mandated, government-managed identification schemes, both Poole and Paul seem to believe that a trusted traveler card would pass a libertarian smell test – on the blithe assumption that it could be privately created and administered, and thereby perhaps preempt a mandatory scheme. So, "[I]t is perfectly legitimate for airlines to issue private ID cards to passengers and perform background checks as a condition of selling them a ticket," declares Paul, even as he repudiates proposals for a national ID card.

But the notion that such a card could be implemented without governmental involvement was implausible on September 12 and is even less plausible now that the federal government has usurped responsibility for airport security.

Poole, for his part, suggests that "millions of business travelers and frequent flyers would be willing to subject themselves" to such a background check. "Extensive use of trusted traveler cards would separate out the majority of passengers, leaving only a small and manageable group of people who would need to undergo more meticulous inspection of their persons and luggage." Presumably, nobody with terrorist intentions would be able to pass the background check and thus spare himself the most rigorous level of scrutiny.

Poole’s trusted traveler card is comparable to Dershowitz’s national ID card, except that Dershowitz wants his card imposed universally. Yet, like Paul, Poole seems oblivious to the possibility that a "voluntary" airline-issued or airport-issued ID card could set the stage for a full-fledged national ID card, or that the database to which the card would be linked might ever be accessed for other than its stated purpose. Dershowitz would solve the problem by "setting criteria for any official who demands to see the card." But as I argue in my Special Report on the prospect of a national ID card, "function creep" is hardly exceptional when it comes to governmental data collection, regardless of any inaugural assurances or protocols.

Perhaps it's okay, though, if some "minarchists" want the government to investigate and track you every time you get on a plane. Some "anarchists" want to track you everywhere you drive...and advocate a world in which refusal to be tracked would render your car "unauthorized."

September 13, 2002

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David M. Brown is a freelance writer and editor, and the publisher of The Crunch Report. This article is adapted from "Your Papers, Please: How a National Identification Regime Would Threaten Privacy, Freedom – And Security," a 46-page report of attempts to impose a national ID card on Americans, and what the likely consequences would be. Are you a number, or a person? For details, contact the publisher, Emergency Tips, at

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