In this month’s issue, an exploration of the national ID card program in Malaysia is presented. With the success of this and similar programs, it raises the question of the appropriateness of mandatory government-issued IDs–a concept as timely as it is controversial. I, like many others, find myself arguing both sides of the issue. My ‘technocratic’ side sees many security benefits in a well-executed, technically-advanced ID program. But the skeptic in me gravitates toward the civil libertarian stance that no mandatory identification program–regardless of its initial intent–can remain non-invasive to personal privacy. In essence the argument is that even if you can trust your government and corporate interests today, you can’t count on your ability to trust them tomorrow.
This is exactly the reason that national IDs and even many pseudo-voluntary IDs are regularly shot down in the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and other Western countries. It is also the reason that the projects that exist–like the Malaysian program profiled in this issue–tend to be from countries with a more authoritarian bent.
Does this mean that the national ID card programs are bad? Not at all. In fact, most of the programs I have come across show little signs of negatively impacting citizens. But could this situation change? Certainly it could. The centralized access to collected data on a citizenry could readily facilitate abuse. It is only the technical security measures employed and the ethical behavior of the trusted parties that keep this from occurring.
Is this admittedly thin veil of protection enough for my personal assurance? My cynical side says “absolutely not.” But is the added protection, service delivery, and fraud reduction that such a program potentially affords my family and me? My technocratic side says “oh yes.”