Monday, October 13, 2008

Identity Crisis

Americans are uniquely concerned with individuality, independence, and personal identity. Ads, self-help gurus, pop culture entertainment, and political and economic conventional wisdom bombard us with messages about self-expression and individual identity. But research shows that there is a powerful social, collective element to identity, too.

Psychologist John Cacioppo and science writer William Patrick (2008) cite Wendy Gardner and Marilyn Brewer, whose research found that answers to the question, “who are you?” fell in three categories: personal, intimate; social, relational (spouse, kids, friends, neighbors); and collective (ethnic group, nation, profession, sports team) (p. 78). Cacioppo and Patrick’s goal is to “change our culture’s lopsided view of human nature, its focus on the individual in isolation as the proper measure of all things” (p. 19).

In our single-minded focus on individual identity, we may be neglecting to demand policies that strengthen our social and civic identities. Consider our voting system. Practices such as “caging” cause the identity and eligibility of many citizens to be challenged at polling places for questionable reasons. The Michigan Messenger (Brayton 2008) reported that the Democratic Party recently filed a lawsuit in Michigan to prevent lists of foreclosures – disproportionately involving African Americans – from being used to challenge voters’ addresses of residence. The standards of accuracy and fairness of lists like these – techniques borrowed from direct mail – are inadequate to be used to determine citizens’ rights. The lists contain errors; people are mistaken for people with similar names; and many people who have had foreclosure proceedings initiated still live in their houses or are still entitled to count them as a legal residence. Elsewhere, inaccurate lists of convicted felons have also been used in this way.

A different system prioritizing citizens’ rights might address some of these problems – for instance, the use of a national identification card. The thought of a nationally centralized database controlled by the federal government with personal identification information about every citizen from birth to death raises the hair on the backs of many necks, from libertarians and populist conservatives to liberals and privacy advocates – and rightly so. But a democracy that purports to represent the will of any group bigger than a village in which everyone knows each other – let alone millions of people spread across a geographic area of 3,794,066 square miles – must have a reliable way of establishing accurate identities of citizens eligible to vote. We fear giving too much power to “big government.” But the government, marketers, credit bureaus, health-insurance providers, financial institutions, credit card companies, retail stores, and Internet-based services already collect, buy, and sell our personal data – in many cases, without our knowledge and with little concern for our privacy.

This has implications for our system of voting. Progressive political commentator Robert Kuttner (2004) argued:

“Tens of millions of Americans don't vote because we make voters go through a two-step process of registering and then voting. As we saw in the elections of 2000 and 2004, the registration process is an invitation to endless political mischief. In fact, registration was introduced in the late 19th century precisely to hold down the numbers of votes, from former slaves and from recent immigrants. It still functions to hold down voting today. In most countries, the national ID card certifies your identity, age, and citizenship. That's it. You present the card, and you vote. In America, millions of volunteer hours and hundreds of millions of dollars go into the needless process of registering voters – time and money that could go toward political activism and education.”

Our unplanned approach to legitimate identification needs has led to a hodgepodge of identification policies that neither provide accurate identification nor protect the privacy of citizens. The REAL ID Act of 2005 was an attempt by the Department of Homeland Security to turn state drivers’ licenses into a quasi-national ID card whose purpose would be to establish identity when the holder boarded a commercial aircraft or entered a federal building or other federal property. States protested that it was an unfunded mandate that would cost them billions of dollars and require departments of motor vehicles to assume immigration and policing functions they weren’t designed for; implementation, originally scheduled for May 2008, was postponed until 2017, and many states have vowed they will never agree to it. The social security card, another common proxy for a national identification card, is also inadequate for that purpose – it’s easily falsified and vulnerable to identity theft. (Sources: EPIC 2008; Gaouette & Mathews 2007; McLaughlin 2007; NCSL 2008)

According to Esther Dyson (2008) in a recent Scientific American article, there’s no going back to the pre-computer days. The issue is not so much increasing privacy for individuals, she argues, but limiting privacy for institutions, so we can monitor what they’re doing with the data they’re collecting. She also points out that many issues that look like privacy issues are actually the result of inadequate policies in other areas. For instance, privacy of genetic information and medical records would not be such an issue if we had universal health coverage and health insurers did not have the power to cherry-pick healthier individuals.

What if U.S. elections looked like elections in many other countries? All U.S. citizens would be presented with a national identification card, free, at birth, which would accompany them throughout life. The cards would feature the secure technology used in most countries for identification – in contrast to driver’s licenses now available in Arizona and some other border states that have inexpensive EPCglobal Gen2 technology like that used for E-Z passes, designed to track products in warehouses, which can be easily captured through walls and purses by readers available in virtually any warehouse in the country (Albrecht 2008). To vote, citizens would present their national identification card – doing away with the contentious and expensive voter registration process. Elections would be held on weekends, or election day would be a national holiday, so they wouldn’t compete with work. And in a real shift for the U.S., voting would be mandatory – a right and responsibility of all citizens, rather than one more consumer choice. How different would our election results be?


Albrecht, Katherine. 2008. “RIFD tag – You’re it,” Scientific American 299, no. 3 (September).

Brayton, Ed. 2008. “Obama campaign files suit over ‘voter-foreclosure’ plans,” Michigan Messenger (September 16).

Cacioppo, John T., and William Patrick. 2008. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. NY: W. W. Norton.

Dyson, Esther. 2008. “Reflections on privacy 2.0,” Scientific American 299, no. 3 (September).

Electronic Privacy Information Center. 2008. Real Id Implementation Review: Few Benefits, Staggering Costs (May).

Gaouette, Nicole, and Joe Mathews. 2007. “Illegal immigrant licenses drive debate,” Los Angeles Times (November 1).

Kuttner, Robert. 2004. “Try national ID card – you might like it,”
Boston Globe (December 8).

McLaughlin, Eliott C. 2007. “Federal ID plan raises privacy concerns,” (August 16).

National Conference of State Legislatures. 2008. Real ID news.

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