Rethinking the ID registry

Mass registration projects have an enormous appeal to politicians. In a perceived crisis, anything from gun crime to terrorism, it is quick and easy to pass legislation and create new databases, thus demonstrating decisiveness and concern. The consequences, as with Canada’s deeply flawed firearms registry, are often at odds with the intent.

Mass identity registration projects are even worse because people exhibit a changing range of characteristics that almost defy categorization. They change their names, addresses, citizenship, marital status, appearance and even their genders. They destroy, lose, sell, trade or perhaps never possess “foundation” documents like birth certificates or proof of nationality, and then destroy, damage, sell or lose the ID cards or drivers’ licences those documents support.

On the other hand, when the registration project is imposed by another level of government, without compensation, on an unrealistic timetable and with no real debate, politicians can raise powerful objections. Earlier this year, the states of Maine and Idaho voted to ignore the federal Real ID Act of 2005, legislation that would force all American states to convert their drivers’ licences into de facto national identity cards.

Under the Act, beginning in 2008, Americans would need federally approved identification to use federal government services, enter federal buildings, board airplanes or open bank accounts. Each state would have to conduct a stringent examination of the documentation supporting a driver’s licence application, and connect their driver database to every other state’s database.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also insists on machine-readability for drivers’ licences, although to date it has been coy about explaining exactly what that means. The Real ID Act received no scrutiny before it was passed, because it was tied to “must pass” funding legislation for the U.S. military and Hurricane Katrina recovery. Not surprisingly, it ran into a storm of opposition.

The American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU) waited for DHS to publish regulations under the Act before it pounced, issuing a “report card” that gave the plan just nine points out of a possible 100. Among its objections: no policy on legal names; requirement for a fixed address; and, because state databases will be connected, there would be an “accountability vacuum” in case of data leaks.

Ironically, even while American states are voting not to mesh their federal government’s identity requirements with drivers’ licences, Canadian provinces would very much like to do just that, if they could replace passports at the Canada-U.S. border.

Since January, citizens of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Bermuda arriving in the U.S. by air needed a passport. At the beginning of 2008, the U.S. government plans to require passports at all land and sea border crossing points as well. Provincial premiers have been shuttling to Washington, seeking clarification, guidance and, most of all, exemptions from new U.S. requirements for border-crossing documentation.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty clearly believes there may be room for negotiation with the Americans on travel documentation. Following the recent announcement that Ontario was rolling out a new, high-tech driver’s permit, he reportedly said, “The proposed new high-security driver’s licence card could be a workable solution for families, businesses and governments on both sides of the border that increases security and protects cross-border trade and tourism.”

But there is no guarantee that an upgraded driver’s licence could ever substitute real travel documents. In fact, David Wilkins, the American ambassador to Canada, is quoted as saying, to Americans and Canadians both: “Get a passport.”

Canada’s federal Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, pointed to the potential dangers of making a driver’s licence into an identity document that would satisfy U.S. requirements. Citizenship has nothing to do with driving in Ontario and that information does not belong on a card, she said. By definition, of course, a travel document must indicate citizenship.

Governments everywhere have a poor record with large information technology projects. It is hard to believe that a mass identity project involving national and sub-national governments can succeed. Each jurisdiction has different laws, policies and regulations; incompatible equipment; and, quite probably, conflicting goals, all of which are subject to change.

The American government in particular has an exceptionally poor record of protecting data it has collected about its own citizens. It is hard to believe it will be more careful with information about Canadians who travel there. It is even more difficult to see why Canadian governments would want to tell the U.S. government anything more about our citizens than they absolutely must.

Richard Bray is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. He can be reached at

Related content:

The politics of digital identities

Future uncertain for Australia’s smartcard

U.S. government plans to outsource smart ID card systems

One entity, one identity

Related Download
Improving the State of Affairs With Analytics Sponsor: SAS
Improving the State of Affairs With Analytics
Download this case study-rich white paper to learn why data management and analytics are so crucial in the public sector, and how to put it to work in your organization.
Register Now