National ID Cards

National ID Cards


National ID cards are a hot topic in Canada and other countries thinking about introducing a nationwide uniform identification document. Especially since the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York and the ongoing 'fight against terrorism', national ID cards have risen to the top of the agenda in immigration and security departments all over the world. Further fuel to the discussion is added by the increasing problem of fraud crimes related to the misuse of personal information, commonly called 'identity theft'.
However, national ID cards are also associated with fears of social control, surveillance and loss of privacy and individual freedom. An ID card regime will likely entail a database containing personal information of everyone bearing the card and could include biometric identifiers. This leads to questions like: What personal information is collected and how is it protected? Who can demand to see the ID card and for what reason? Who can query the database? And how much does it all cost?
This section of the CIPPIC website addresses issues surrounding national ID cards and its implications for society and the rights of individuals.
See also: Biometrics.



What is meant by a "national ID card"?

A national ID card can be broadly defined as a nationwide, all purpose identification document for Canadian citizens. It could be issued by the federal government, or by provincial governments.
It would likely come in the form of a plastic card, with a computer chip containing name, date, place of birth, and gender of the bearer as well as a serial number. Possible additional information would be physical attributes such as height, eye colour, or other information like current address, a sample signature, academic degrees or stage names.
A particularly controversial issue is the possibility of including biometric data, such as a fingerprint or retinal pattern, in the card.
Another important aspect of a national ID card system is whether it would be mandatory or voluntary.

What are foundation documents?

These are documents that are used for establishing the identity of an applicant before issuing subsequent ID documents like driver's licenses, passports, etc. The most prominent of the foundation documents is the birth certificate. The reliability of subsequent ID documents largely depends on that of the foundation documents. Many ID card critics point out that the any ID card discussion is moot unless the problem of foundation document security is properly addressed.

What are the main purposes of a national ID card system?

A national ID card as a general identification document could be used in many different situations, both in dealing with government agencies and private entities. In fact, one of the main goals of introducing a national ID card is the so called 'synergy effect' of replacing multiple identification documents with a single, standardized, and widely recognized document.
A prominently discussed use of national ID cards is immigration and border control. The Canadian discussion of national ID cards is, on the governmental side, spearheaded by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Interestingly, immigration and border control is an area that is already served by three strong identification systems: passports, the Permanent Resident's Card ("Maple Leaf Card"), and the Citizenship Card. Nevertheless, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, Denis Coderre, sees a great need for an additional card, especially in the face of frequent demands by the U.S. to increase border security by enhancing document integrity, possibly including biometrics.
Another important use of national ID cards is to authenticate a person's entitlement to government services. Services such as welfare payments and health could be made dependent on the presentation of an ID card. In addition, voter registries could be based on national ID cards.
In line with the aforementioned synergy effect, a national ID card could also replace identification documents that are currently used in the private sector, but that are issued by the government for other purposes - e.g., driver's licenses, health cards, and social insurance numbers. It is likely that private entities would switch to asking customers for their national ID card for identification and age verification, rather than dealing with a multitude of different identification documents such as driver's licenses, health cards or birth certificates.

Which other countries have national ID card systems?

Several democratic countries have national ID card systems. They include Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and Spain. As critics of ID cards occasionally point out, some countries, such as Germany and Spain, introduced the cards under fascist regimes in the 1930s, and have not withdrawn them.
Interestingly, none of the major common law countries (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) has a national ID card regime. However, like Canada, the UK is currently investigating possible ways of introducing either voluntary or mandatory ID cards. Australia is also considering a national identification card scheme; in July 2005, the previously considered concept was resurrected, re-igniting debate in that country over the merits of such a scheme.

Who wants a national ID card, and why?

Currently (fall 2003), a major force behind national ID cards in Canada is the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Although Minister Coderre rekindled the debate in 2003 by stating that he wanted to instigate an open discussion on national ID cards, his comments were mostly in favour of some kind of national ID card regime. A government-sponsored forum on ID card policy in October 2003 had as its keynote speaker Harvard Professor Alan M. Dershowitz, an outspoken proponent of national ID cards.
One of the main reasons Minister Coderre gives for supporting some form of national ID card regime is the increased security demands by the U.S., especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The logic goes that if the U.S. and other countries demand a higher level of travel document security, or require biometric information in passports in order to be allowed into the country, Canada will have no choice but to 'join the trend'. With major federal government changes expected in 2004, it remains to be seen if the Canadian government will pursue this issue.
Another proponent of national ID card systems is the biometrics, document security and data management industry. A nationwide ID card, possibly mandatory for every citizen above a certain age, is a project worth billions of dollars to this industry. It would require manufacturing the cards, setting up and maintaining registry databases, as well as a secure network infrastructure and the distribution of thousands of card readers and possibly biometric scanners. Clearly, many industry players have a vested interest in the development and implementation of a national ID card in Canada.

Who is opposed to a national ID card in Canada, and why?

Most privacy commissioners in Canada, federal and provincial, are against a national ID card system. In the course of consultations conducted by Parliament's Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in 2003 on the issue of national ID cards, the provincial privacy commissioners expressed their concerns in letters to the Committee. Similar submissions were made by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Electronic Frontier Canada. On the international stage, critical voices are raised by, amongst others, Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The most frequently raised concerns about national ID cards are that they constitute a perfect surveillance tool and lead to an invasion of privacy, especially when abused. Moreover, national ID cards are seen as foreign to Canadian society and its values of free movement and civil liberty. If there is a need for identification, the current use of driver's licenses and passports is viewed as sufficient. Last but not least, the enormous and potentially uncontrollable costs of a national ID card system is seen as being disproportional to any benefits that it would have.
For more details see:
Privacy Commissioners/Ombudsperson:
Civil Liberty Groups

What are the potential benefits of a national ID card system?

A big advantage of a uniform national ID card system is the synergy effect, i.e. the concentration of identification functions into one nationwide document. Instead of having to deal with a multitude of different identification documents, some of which are of questionable security, government agencies and private entities would be able to demand a single, instantly recognizable identification document. Likewise, citizens and consumers could simplify the documentation they need to carry and present for identification purposes. This could heighten identification security, as well as reduce cost and increase convenience.
Another potential benefit springs from the possibility of including biometric information in the card (See also Biometrics FAQ). This will enhance general document security, as it makes it much more difficult, albeit not impossible, to forge the card. Biometrics could also become important if the U.S. and other countries demand their inclusion in travel documents.
Proponents of a national ID card argue that it could also help law enforcement agencies track down offenders and prevent certain types of fraudulent behaviour such as identity theft and welfare fraud. It could also be used in enforcing labour laws, finding child support evaders and fighting money laundering.

Will a national ID card system reduce the risk of identity fraud?

A national ID card has been touted as a partial solution to the growing identity fraud problem. However, it may instead exacerbate identity fraud. Microsoft has warned that the UK's national identity card plans pose a security risk that could increase the likelihood of confidential data falling into the hands of criminals. A top security and identity management expert at Microsoft said no systems are ever completely secure and warned that putting vast amounts of personal data and biometric information in one central database could prove too tempting a target for hackers and other criminals.
Others have pointed out that a national ID card is unlikely to prevent identity fraud to any significant degree, given the ways in which such fraud is perpetrated. In a 2003 report on Identity Theft, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre states:

Biometrics and a national ID card have recently been touted as the answer to ID theft. Neither of these "magic bullets" will have a serious effect on ID theft. ID theft results from the combination of human and systemic factors listed above and can only be dealt with by addressing the causes individually and collectively.

Identity theft is largely the result of today's anonymous and fast-paced society. While anonymity increases the need for better identification in order to make or receive a transaction, the call for more automation and more convenience leaves fertile ground for identity fraud. The price we pay for using debit cards and ATMs is an increase in the abuse of these convenient systems by criminals. Even best ID system cannot prevent hacking of computer databases, stealing of paper documentation, and "shoulder surfing" of consumers entering PINs. Indeed, if identification starts to revolve around just one major identification system, the damage to individuals that occurs when the system is compromised or abused will be much greater than with the more diversified identification systems that are in place today. Under a biometric national ID card system, fraudulently obtained cards will be much more difficult to identify and retract.

What are the potential downsides?

As noted above, a national ID card could in fact exacerbate the problem of identity fraud.
A major concern associated with national ID cards is "function creep" - i.e., the use of personal information in the system for purposes not originally intended. This is a particular danger with any large-scale database of personal information. It is a particularly serious concern with a mandatory ID card system, since the associated database would contain personal information of all card-carrying citizens. In addition, the use of the same ID card in for business transactions will lead to the compilation of private databases that could be easily cross-referenced with each other, thanks to the use of a single card. Ensuring that access to the database is appropriately limited, and that uses of information in the database are also limited, may be impossible.
There is further concern that every citizen will be compelled to carry the card at all times and be subjected to increased surveillance and even random checks while walking down the street. Some critics fear that this is yet another step towards a total surveillance society.

What are the prospective costs of a national ID card?

Estimates range from at least 1.5 billion dollars to 5 billion dollars, with some estimates going as high as 9 billion dollars. Factors determining the actual costs will be, amongst others, whether the card is mandatory or voluntary, what security features it includes (e.g., biometrics, smart chip), and in what intervals it would have to be renewed.

Would a national ID card include biometric data, and if so, what kind?

If a national ID card system is put in place, it would probably include some sort of biometrics apart from a photograph, especially if the card is to also function as a travel document. Minister Coderre of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration predicted that by the year 2005, many countries will require a biometric travel document in order for visitors to enter.
Biometric ID cards would likely include digital fingerprints, iris scans or other easily scanned biometric features. The advantage of fingerprints is that they have been used as identifiers for a long time and are perceived as less intrusive than retina scans, where the person has to position his or her face in a specific way and a light beam enters the eye. In order to be a viable solution for all purpose ID cards, the biometric identifier has to be reasonably reliable, fast and easy to obtain in a variety of situations and be minimally intrusive.

Aren't passports and driver's licenses sufficient?

A major argument against a national ID card is that there are already sufficient systems in place to provide secure identification, namely passports and driver's licenses. Proponents of a national ID card, however, argue that passports and driver's licenses are special purpose documents and cannot and should not assume the position of an all purpose ID document. Driver's licenses are not available to everyone and current passports are bulky and tailored to being a travel document.
Still, especially in the face of the high costs incurred by a national ID card system, the money may be more wisely spent improving the existing infrastructure instead of adding a whole new infrastructure. Special driver's licenses could be issued for non-drivers, and passports could be made more convenient to be acceptable for everyday use.


Privacy Commissioners and Ombudspersons
This page last updated: June 2, 2007
Researched and written by Marc Watkins, LL.M.