October 14, 2004

Show us your papers, please.

We've all heard that phrase in movies where the police of an authoritarian regime just walk up to people and ask them to prove their identity and that they have a right to be where they are. Or, if you're a child of the Cold War like this magpie, you may have heard it in school in the context of learning about how terrible it was to live under communism in the Soviet Union, and how those poor, oppressed Soviet citizens couldn't even travel if they didn't have the proper papers. And how Soviets with unacceptable political views couldn't get those papers.

Well, get ready to say hello to the US version of the internal passport — except that federal officials are calling it a standardized driver's license. Under the guise of protecting the nation from terrorists, legislation currently working its way through both houses of Congress would create a document that the government could require citizens to produce before they'd be allowed to use the nation's transportation system and other parts of the infrastructure:

The Senate version of the intelligence bill includes an amendment, passed by unanimous consent on Oct. 1, that would let the secretary of homeland security decide what documents a state would have to require before issuing a driver's license, and would also specify the data that the license would have to include for it to meet federal standards. The secretary could require the license to include fingerprints or eye prints. The provision would allow the Homeland Security Department to require use of the license, or an equivalent card issued by motor vehicle bureaus to nondrivers for identification purposes, for access to planes, trains and other modes of transportation.

The bill does not give the department the authority to force the states to meet the federal standards, but it would create enormous pressure on them to do so. After a transition period, the department could decide to accept only licenses issued under the rules as identification at airports.

The House's version of the intelligence bill, passed Friday, would require the states to keep all driver's license information in a linked database, for quick access. It also calls for "an integrated network of screening points that includes the nation's border security system, transportation system and critical infrastructure facilities that the secretary determines need to be protected against terrorist attack."

The two versions will go to a House-Senate conference committee.

Some civil liberties advocates say they are horrified by the proposal.

"I think it means we're going to end up with a police state, essentially, by allowing the secretary of homeland security to designate the sensitive areas and allowing this integrating screening system," said Marv Johnson, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. If the requirement to show the identification card can be applied to any mode of transportation, he said, that could eventually include subways or highways, and the result would be "to require you to have some national ID card, essentially, in order to go from point A to point B."

James C. Plummer Jr., a policy analyst at Consumer Alert, a nonprofit organization based here, said, "You're looking at a system of internal passports, basically." [emphasis added]

Sadly, we have to note that Democrats as well as Republicans are supporting this legislation.

Via NY Times (and a tip from Corrente).

Posted by Magpie at October 14, 2004 10:56 PM | Civil Liberties | Technorati links |