ID cards

Around the world, governments without national identity cards are trying to implement them. Canada is no exception; for public officials who struggle with the challenge of identifying and authenticating citizens before they can deliver programs or services, a single comprehensive card is like a dream come true, especially if it is functional in a digital environment.

Making the dream a reality, of course, means a large expenditure of time and money. Some agency must take on the job of matching an individual’s claim to an identity with unshakable proof of that identity; once made, that match must be made instantly and securely available at literally thousands of points; the match must be stored and protected for at least the citizen’s lifetime if not infinitely beyond; and, needless to say, the system of identification must never, ever be used for an unintended purpose.

In the end, the only argument for a national ID card that may prove acceptable is security. In the absence of a valid study showing that a comprehensive identity scheme will return more in benefits and savings than it costs, only the threat of disaster can justify the cost and inconvenience. Intrusiveness is no barrier to a security solution, provided the public accepts its value. Airline passengers have learned not only to submit to lengthy, labour intensive searches; in their minds, the meagre harvest of forgotten nail scissors and cigarette lighters may even be proof that the system can indeed detect and prevent a range of threats.

By contrast, as now seems apparent in the case of the subway bombers in Madrid and London, a national ID card scheme would probably make little difference – their papers were in order. In fact, Spanish security forces used valid ID cards to identify some of the perpetrators. That points directly to another drawback of a comprehensive trusted card. Once a criminal has successfully established a false identity – and that would only be a matter of time – the identity card itself becomes a badge of respectability, absolving police and security officials of any further responsibility to investigate. In 1999, Ahmed Rassam was on his way from British Columbia to bomb Los Angeles International Airport when an alert border guard singled him out because he appeared nervous. He probably would have passed an electronic security check.

In Britain, the Blair government has been pushing ahead with a national ID card program to curb illegal immigration, prevent crime and terrorism, restrict services to those who are entitled to them and make public services more convenient. The card would be non-compulsory, except when holders attempt to use certain government services, like obtaining a passport. The scheme is getting a rough ride from a variety of critics, but a report from the London School of Economics may summarize them best; it says the proposals are “… too complex, technically unsafe, overly prescriptive and lack a foundation of public trust and confidence.” If that were not enough, the real cost of integrating each card with departments and agencies could be more than $1,000 Cdn. The British government admits to costs of up to $16 billion over 10 years, a figure the London School of Economics says could range up to $40 billion. That presumably does not include the amount the government plans to charge individuals for the cards.

Everything is quickly connecting with everything else on this globalizing globe, so it is safe to say that Canada will eventually be forced to meet some minimum international standards. The world is moving to machine-readable passports with some sort of biometric validation within the document, but Canadians will probably find the biggest pressure to upgrade identity documents will come from our most popular means of travel – the private automobile – and our most popular destination – the United States. So far, Canada and Canadians have been exempted from tough new U.S. visa and passport requirements, but our driver’s licences might fail another test.

Right now, the United States is introducing a de facto national ID card by strong-arming the 50 states to upgrade their driver’s licence programs to meet federal standards by 2008. Federal law will require each state to verify that its licensed drivers have citizenship, and a simple birth certificate will not be enough. Incredibly, people without the new licence will not be able to enter federal buildings or board airplanes.

There is some expensive overhead in the U.S. scheme. Computer systems, some of them more than 20 years old, must be upgraded. Administrative and front counter procedures, some of which now accept an electricity bill as proof of identity, must be revamped. And networks must be able to share standardized data nationwide, instantly.

In practical terms, it is difficult to imagine Americans tolerating a situation in which the only exceptions to a tough rule are Canadians. Which means that our national ID card may well be driver’s licences acceptable in the United States.

Richard Bray ( is a freelance journalist in Ottawa specializing in technology and security issues.

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