Thursday, April 27, 2006

The ID card debate

With Australia joining the growing list of countries to have a mandatory in all by name national ID card, soon to be followed by our own green and pleasant land, I stumbled across a comment on Slashdot the more or less sums up my feelings on the ID card debate.
I moved from Australia to the US in 1978, in that year in both countries it was extremely unlikely that a law enforcement officer would approach you for no particular reason and ask for identification. However this very much was not the case in Eastern Europe (where I was born) and presumably the redder portions of South East Asia as well. Also at the time you did not need written permission to live, work, or just be at any certain place. So the "paper's please" thing became a jibe from the armchair anticommunists as sort of a short form of our country is so much better than yours. Indeed my own father, a staunch Anti-Communist, took us for a car trip both around Australia and across the United States in a prolonged state of rapture caused by the fact that we could go all these places and see all these things and not only not present papers to anyone of authority but not go through inspections or checkpoints (even at state lines!).

Fast forward to 2006 and world is different place. Terrorism has replaced Communism and the many of those same armchair anticommunists are now demanding the very things that they derided during the cold war in communist countries. It's a bizarre thing that I cannot travel around the US without identification, Can I refuse to show a policeman identification anymore? (I don't think so, but it's been awhile since I've been back to the US). I can not walk down most US streets with a simple beer in my hand... But I can take train from where I live now to the place where I was born and I can pass the abandoned check point which I passed as a child in a box in the trunk of a car... drinking what ever I want and showing my passport once as I pass over the border into Czech Republic.

I don't need papers in the place my parents ran from, but I need them in the place they ran to... - Bhima Pandava
I have no such experiences with repressive regimes, but I'm a good enough student of history to know that I don't want to have any experience with one in the future, and I'd very much hoped the phrase, "Papers please?", would in today's world be just that. History...


  1. Having mandantory ID cards is one thing (I might add that in Germany with a long tradition of mandantory IDs ;-) I have never been asked for my ID except in cases where a policeman had stopped me for trafic violations where you have to show your driver's license in other countries as well if my information is right).

    However not having voluntary ID cards is not convenient in my mind: Try opening a bank account in the UK when you just moved to that country, it's a Kafka style night mare:

    Bank: We require two proofs of ID.

    Me: Like?

    Bank: Passport, ID Card, UK driver's license, utility bill, letter from bank, ...

    Me: OK, here are my German passport and ID card.

    Bank: They are not independent. You need something else.

    Me: Here is my EU driver's license

    Bank: Won't do, we need a UK one.

    Me: Letter from my German bank?

    Bank: That does not show your UK address.

    Me: I just moved here. How am I supposed to have a utility bill? Especially, if I don't yet have a bank account to pay it from?

    Bank: ???

    Me (thinking): I am tempted to use the department colour laser printer to produce something that looks like a utility bill or a letter from bank xyz. In the end, those letters are just laser print out as well. But let's not go for that option, try to play it to their rules.

    Me: What about a letter from my employer (Cambridge University)?

    Bank: That might do.

    OK, went to the department got that letter (bw laser printout BTW).

    Bank: This is addressed to "To whom it may concern". This is not good enough. Get a letter "To the manager of Barclays Bank".

    Did that. There was one more cycle of back and forth since they did not like the date on the second letter but in the end I got my account.

    All this would be so much simpler if there were an _established_ way to prove your identity and an ID card is such a thing. And believe me, if I wanted to open an account to launder money, I would have no difficulties to forge a letter from a bank and a utilities bill which currently they would accept as two proofs of my ID.

  2. yFor the record I think it is a bad idea, I for one do not trust any government enough to responsibly use the power that a national id system would give them.

  3. Anonymous10:56 pm

    Being asked for his papers is one thing.
    Being asked for your papers just because of the color of your skin is another one, which unfortunately happens more and more frequently in France.
    I've never been asked for my papers whereas some of my friends are frequently asked for, as they appear to have a darker skin ...