Illustration by Paula Scher for Subjective Reasoning, issue entitled "Useless Information," published by Champion Paper, 1992.
When I was 11 years old, I saw my mother's passport for the first time. This seemingly inconsequential event was, in fact, a really big deal: up until that moment, I had no idea how old she was. An extremely private person, my mother had made a point of never disclosing her age to anyone, and that included her children. Looking back, I now realize she may have been the last of a dying breed: a generation of women who believed that revealing your age was as inappropriate as, say, discussing religion or politics in public.
Today, of course, religion is politics, and it's all public. And while privacy itself may be more casually discussed in public, it's no less imperiled. With the very real possibility of a new, National ID Card looming, the question of what actually constitutes privacy in other words, what personal information is revealed to the public on a routine basis raises serious questions for all of us.
Civil libertarians, human rights activists, even State-run organizations have opposed the advent of the Real ID, which was initially introduced by Congress as an attachment to a funding measure for the war in Iraq. It has been conceived as part of an anti-terrorism law creating a national standard for drivers licenses, and it is, as yet, unclear how much of the financial burden (estimated in the millions) will be shouldered by the Federal government. While its supporters argue that cracking down on identity theft and terrorism are all necessary in the interest of national security, many Americans disagree, arguing that such benefits are dwarfed by the implications of compromised privacy. And given our country's unclear policies on domestic surveillance (read "wiretapping") we may, indeed, have reason to be concerned.
Once the new-and-improved driver's license is under way, how soon can we expect to see the introduction of a National ID Card? Two weeks ago, a plan to introduce mandatory National ID Cards in Britain was approved in the House of Commons. Despite a rebellion by about 20 members of Mr. Blair's own Labor Party, the government voted 310 to 279 in favor of biometric information (including fingerprinting and iris scans) being added to both passports and the new IDs. American ID Card advocates are likely to propose similar improvements, and biometrics offer a plausible compromise. (Your privacy is protected but your public information is encrypted.) This doesn't solve the question of what information is being shared or shielded from public scrutiny. But it does raise more fractious and far-reaching issues among them, whether we are willing to be parsed into so much encrypted data in pursuit of the promise of enhanced security?
The public protection of private records is thwarted with complex legal and ethical questions. What makes the possibility of a National ID Card so additionally problematic is the fact that privacy is itself difficult to identify. Are you willing to disclose your eye color? How about your home address? Maybe the best solution is a sliding scale: but would sharing more information allow for more perks in this case, greater or quicker access like the benefits granted to platinum credit card holders? Some religious groups oppose the use of photographic portraiture: would an illustration offer a more abstract, yet still representative likeness? Others resist sharing medical records, employment histories, even owning up to parking tickets. And while it may seem comparatively weak as an argument, my mother, had she lived to see this moment, would likely have opposed revealing her age. (The point is: if it's private to you, why can't it just remain private?) And once you give in a little, where do you draw the line? What about addresses and signatures, codes and passwords, account numbers and membership data? How about prescription numbers? Social security numbers? Number of iTunes downloaded in the last six months? Boxers or briefs? Silly, yes: yet such data serve to collectively define your patterns of activity and offer, consequently, a kind of cryptic set of clues about Who You Are. Such lists, while coded and abstract, offer a kind of indexical portrait of spending activity and other consumer behaviors. (Paula Scher's illustration, above, part of a larger body of work that looked at the futility of a lot of the information we covet, said it all.) It is likely that the mandated ID Card information will be much more intrusive: blood type, sexual persuasion, religious affiliation, voting record. And of course, age. (My children already know mine, so I guess I'm safe where they're concerned.)
Safety, of course, is the ideological umbrella hanging over this entire debate. What does it mean to be safe? Moreover, what will it mean to define a person's most critical coordinates on a two-sided, piece of wallet-proportioned plastic? Inventing, constructing and maintaining the underlying system that supports this huge morass of delicate and yes, perhaps disproportionately private data might just be the biggest conceptual design problem facing the next decade. And, by all indications, it's likely to be the most expensive one, too. Meanwhile, the question of whether the Constitution protects privacy in ways not expressly provided in the Bill of Rights remains controversial. (Troublesome as the world has become, it is reassuring to know that not all Americans are losing sleep over this.) Would a National ID Card be consistent with the promise of American freedom or alien to the spirit of American liberty? Biometrics notwithstanding, the notion of a splintered selfhood is, to many, difficult to stomach, particularly if all that stands between you and getting on a plane is getting over it that is, agreeing to be carded.