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Too late to stop national ID

By Roger F. Gay
web posted December 3, 2001

"Imagine a state in which you must register your name and address with the authorities, just so they can find you in case you break the law. In an age when bills vaunting protections for privacy abound, and when surveys of consumers rank privacy as a top concern, could that happen here? It is already happening. When we rely on the federal government to solve our problems, we invite it to intrude upon our privacy. We are asking Big Brother to come in and make himself at home."
— How Big Brother Began, Solveig Singleton, Cato Institute

Changes in technology have left a nation confused about how the modern national ID system is implemented. Visions of passports with stamped pages need to be replaced with the modern reality of the computer age. Centrally located file cabinets filled with hand written cards have been replaced by interconnected databases in a huge distributed system.

It has long since been understood that safeguarding our freedom requires limiting the government's access to personal information. Where a legitimate purpose is served, government agencies have been allowed to accumulate limited information for specific purposes. Over the past decade a dramatic shift has taken place. The government has developed the ability to accumulate the maximum amount of information and provided central access to an army of low level bureaucrats. All signs indicate that this is just a beginning.

During the eight years of the Clinton administration, the federal government spent approximately four billion dollars developing a national database system for keeping track of intimate details of the lives of all Americans. Funding, and in fact the project itself was never held up for close public scrutiny. Most of the people reading this article have never heard of the project. Of those who have, many probably believe it was either shut down for lack of public support, or limited in purpose.

In order to understand the potential of such a system it is worthwhile to consider its cost. Four billion dollars is a huge amount of money to spend on development of a computer system. It could buy more than sixty million hours (thirty thousand years) of engineering consulting time. It is enough to pay 130,000 people an average income for one year. It is more than enough to buy a million modern desktop computers; each one powerful enough to manage a database containing information about every man, woman, and child in the United States, and then some.

$4 billion buys a lot of B-2s
$4 billion buys a lot of B-2s

Four billion dollars is a lot of money. It would buy almost ninety B-2 stealth bombers. It is enough to pay for about forty thousand average homes. It is enough to send about one hundred thousand students to college for one year or buy hot lunches for every elementary school child in the United States for five hundred years.

As awesome as the price tag is, the excuses for its existence have been poor. The premier reason it was built, according to most official reports, is to track child support payments and people who are supposed to make them. But state and county governments, already armed with their own computers resisted. Propaganda campaigns exaggerated claims of non-payment to the level of a national emergency, but were countered with real data from the national census and other research showing that fully employed fathers pay well. Fathers of children supported by welfare are often poor, unskilled, too sick to work, in jail, unknown, or dead. Another database system does nothing to reduce poverty.

The database would be used to catch illegal aliens. This was a short-lived excuse. One only needed to point out that illegal aliens would probably be the only people not registered.

As weak as the justification is, the child support excuse still had the necessary characteristics. The government wanted to look into every important detail of a person's life. Laws were passed to require financial institutions to provide detailed information on transactions. Systems were integrated so that information obtained from all government sources would be available in one search, and so that businesses and other private organizations could contribute and access information. "Deadbeat dad" propaganda was intense. As long as people could believe that fathers do not deserve fundamental human rights, they could accept the logic of unconstitutional privacy infringements.

States were initially asked to pay half the cost. The problem that states were not interested was overcome by a creative funding strategy. The federal government paid the cost of developing the system and added incentive payments of more than one billion dollars per year to encourage states to use it. With the inclusion of this funding, every politician, bureaucrat, judge, and prosecutor instantly became a "deadbeat dad" hunter. The combined state / federal system now employs more than fifty thousand people nationwide.

Those in Congress who promoted the system promised repeatedly that it would only be used to track child support payments and people who are supposed to pay. But as soon as the system could function, that cover was blown. The database became known as the "National Directory of New Hires." The name reflected the first strategy for registering people. Rather than registering child support debtors, everyone taking a new job would be registered. This strategy eventually shifted to registration of everyone with a job, a social security number, a driver's license, a bank account, a telephone; anyone for which there is a source of information. You can be located whatever you do, and the government will know what you do.

The Bush administration does not appear to be set to improve the record. Amidst a flurry of anti-terrorism legislation, administration officials have issued several denials that a national ID system is even contemplated. We already have a modern computerized system in place that is far more effective than any identification and tracking system the Nazis or the Soviet Communists ever had. Common sense suggests that possession of such an Orwellian tool has not escaped their notice.

The primary contractor for the database system was Andersen Consulting. The company broke from international financial services consulting firm Arthur Andersen, Andersen Worldwide this year and was renamed Accenture Ltd. Accenture is based in Bermuda, a well-known offshore tax and privacy haven.

Roger F. Gay is a professional analyst and director of the Project for Improvement of Child Support Litigation Technology. His research on child support over the past ten years brought him in touch with the national database issue. You may e-mail Roger at picslt@mail.lawguru.com.

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