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Thanks but no thanks, Larry Ellison

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 8, 2001


While much has been said about those who engaged in "price-gouging" in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks, perhaps the most self-serving response has been Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's offer to donate free software to the federal government for the development of a central national identification database.

It is not difficult to imagine how this generosity would ultimately yield financial gains for Oracle, though it would be amusing to see Ellison's offer accepted by the same federal government that brought anti-trust cases against Bill Gates for giving Internet Explorer to consumers for free. In this instance, we would all pay for Ellison's charity by opening ourselves up to government abuse and diminished civil liberties.

Having to fork over your papers to the authorities is characteristic of Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid, but not of a free constitutional republic. First, though this may seem a remarkably passe' concern, the federal government has absolutely no constitutional authority to require American citizens to carry a national ID card or to maintain a central database containing Americans' identities. A government unconstrained by the Constitution is not one that should be trusted with its citizens' identity information. The Constitution should not be a casualty of September 11, 2001.

So what, asks US News and World Report columnist Randall E. Stross. Only a society of hermits and self-sufficient farmers can be secure without a national ID card, accompanied by a digitized photograph and fingerprint. "If there's a prolonged debate over national identity cards, " wrote Stross in the October 8 issue, "I hope it will not run along the old ruts, the individual's interests versus the state's. This vital matter is really between citizen and fellow citizen, the obligations of community members to one another." Just add three words (for the children) and we have now unassailably justified any conceivable expansion of government.

Never is it asked precisely how the national ID card would have stopped the recent terrorist attacks, because all known participants entered the country legally. Note also the assumption that a national ID card could not be falsified, a laughable assertion in the face of contemporary technology. The national ID card is simply an unconscionable invasion of privacy that counterfeiters would be able to reproduce as effectively as current forms of identification, in time if not already.

Stross repeats the most popular counter-argument of the pro-ID crowd to the question of privacy: It's too late to worry about that, because in this digital age the private sector already has your identity on file. "Yet these are outside our oversight," writes Stross. "A federal identity database, however, would be ours, accountable to us, governed by rules that we the public direct."

This is hopelessly naïve. First, the routine invasions of privacy seen in American life today hardly justify making the situation worse. Second, the abuses visited upon us by the private sector pale in comparison to those the government is capable of. Government possesses a legal monopoly on lethal armed force. Junk mail can be thrown away, annoying cold-call telemarketers can be put into your answering machine, companies that misuse data can lose business or be prosecuted. What checks are there against government abuse of such a database?

Does Stross really think we are going to take a majority vote each time the database is about to be put to some use? (As if that would necessarily protect individual rights even if it were the case.) Are we going to be taking daily tours to monitor the uses of this database and correct abuses? "We the public" are not going to be managing this database, nor for the most part will our elected officials. Government bureaucrats will be in control of this information.

Without even detailing the more horrific examples of government abuses and malfeasance, it is clear that government does at times abuse such information. Already, the Social Security number has been transformed into an identity number despite initial government assurances -even legal promises - to the contrary. In early 1995, some 500 IRS employees were caught snooping through friends' and celebrities' income tax returns. Only five of them were fired. Confidential Census data was used to identify Japanese-Americans during the policy of internment during World War II. The state of Ohio actually sold its drivers' license and car registration lists to a private company.

Indeed, the only way a national ID card system could even theoretically work is if all Americans were to be closely monitored on the basis of the information contained in the database. Otherwise, there isn't even any point to this exercise. Conservatives who support this proposal should realize how this system would assist further growth of government, from gun confiscation to socialized medicine.

According to a study by Stephen Moore and John J. Miller for the Cato Institute, if used to enforce immigration regulations on employers, a national identity database with an error rate as low as 1 percent would deny jobs to 650,000 American workers per year. Making business an enforcement arm of big brother imposes costs.

The risks of having such information abused by powerful federal bureaucrats outweigh the benefits of any national ID card system. President Bush and our political leaders should tell Larry Ellison no thanks and concentrate on a military response to Al Qaeda and its allies.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at

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