Opponents of mandatory or quasi-mandatory identification cards on the religious Right have pointed to the Bible’s warning against the “sin of David,” whom Satan incited to conduct a census and whom God punished for thus “numbering” the people (1 Chronicles 21). Caesar’s all-empire registration that took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (Luke 2) has similarly colored the view of many Americans that any government information collection for tax purposes is part of a wider conspiracy.
Likewise, the introduction of a government-assigned number in order to take up a job was viewed as fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of the “mark of the beast” in Revelation 13: “no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” The widening use of ID numbers is said to be mandated by international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Community, as part of the New World Order predicted in Daniel 7:23 and Revelation 13:4–8.
The Social Security Administration’s “Enumeration at Birth” program, in which newborns are assigned Social Security Numbers (SSNs), is part of a “global plan for enumeration,” mandated by the UN. New identification technology is seen as particularly worrisome, with fears, for example, that bar codes contain the number 666, the mark of the beast.
On the Left, the assignment of SSNs to workers in the 1930s produced concerns, for example by the United Mineworkers, of a potential employers’ “blacklist” of troublemaking laborers. However, much of the opposition to the SSN was fueled by opposition to President Roosevelt’s New Deal itself, and made use of conspiratorial accusations largely as a rhetorical flourish.
Just before the 1936 election, Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon asked rhetorically if millions of Americans would now be fingerprinted and photographed and “opened for federal snooping.” The Hearst newspapers asked, “Do you want a tag and a number in the name of false security?” and spread the rumor that all workers would be required to wear dog tags displaying the SSN.
Although the fears and conspiracy theories that met the introduction of the SSN can now seem farfetched, it is nevertheless the case that the numbers have become all-purpose identifiers, despite assurances at the time, and fears about the erosion of liberty and privacy are not unfounded.
However, the United States does not have a national ID card as other countries do. The most-commonly checked government IDs are the driver’s licenses issued by the fifty states, but less than 20 percent of the population has a U.S. passport. More than 7,000 different jurisdictions issue all manner of birth certificates, which are the “breeder documents” upon which other IDs are based.
Proponents of universal ID cards start from the observation that the United States already has a de facto national ID card, in the form of driver’s licenses, and a national ID number, in the form of the SSN. In the wake of the terrorist attack on September 11, for example, advocates for a national ID card argued that the existing system had to be made more robust by combining the existing cards into one.
In a similar vein, opponents of national ID cards suggest that the current scattered system is but the slippery slope to the introduction of a national ID. These skeptics assert that, because totalitarian systems rely on ID cards (Nazi Germany’s IBMsupplied ID system, the Soviet internal passport, and apartheid South Africa’s pass system being key examples), ID cards themselves represent the thin edge of the wedge of a Big Brother state apparatus, which could be introduced by stealth and in a piecemeal fashion, via small technological improvements and policy changes.
Mainstream civil liberties and privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Privacy Foundation do not see any conspiracy in this, although slippery-slope arguments can sometimes play the same role as conspiracy theory in viewing together what would otherwise be unrelated, disparate events. Sometimes privacy advocates will employ the hint of conspiracy to simplify the presentation of what is really an argument about incremental, technological determinism.
A rather different group of ID opponents does see a literal conspiracy. In U.S. history there is a longstanding populist, right-wing fear of the encroachment of “big government” into the life of the average American, and ID cards are often seen as part of a larger conspiracy of the federal government (and the so-called New World Order) to control the private life of citizens. Members of the Patriot movement, in groups such as the Militia of Montana and the Posse Comitatus, have attempted to rescind or revoke their own driver’s licenses or SSNs, in a process called “asseveration.”
For example, Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols had at one point attempted to back out of a $20,000 debt by attempting to repudiate his U.S. citzenship; he destroyed his driver’s license, passport, and voter registration card. Similar ID-revocation techniques have been used in attempts to avoid child-support payments, back taxes, gun registration, seatbelt laws, speed limits, and similar infringements on “sovereign” citizens.
These groups describe ID cards as part of a conspiracy to hook citizens into rejecting their “sovereign” status. Even the ZIP code is feared as a form of “adhesion contract” to nullify sovereignty. The idea of ID cards as an antisovereign conspiracy is generally employed as part of a strategy for avoiding taxes or other financial burdens, although this kind of tax avoidance has been universally unsuccessful.
There is, however, a thriving business in running seminars on the subject, at which attendees might pay several hundred dollars to acquire the appropriate paperwork, plus the ability to themselves hold similar seminars, forming a kind of multilevel-marketing campaign for the anti-ID card conspiracy theory.
In the United States “liberty” is often a code word for guns, and even fairly mainstream opponents of gun registration sometimes see ID cards as part of a much larger pattern, in which “fascist” government agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) is targeting gun owners and the “politically incorrect.” The Brady Bill requires that ID such as a driver’s license be shown and checked against a federal database as part of a handgun sale, which has led the gun lobby to equate registration and ID cards with gun control.
New forms of technology provoke similar responses from opponents of identification cards. “Smart” cards, which can carry several megabytes of data, are frequently described as the next step in bringing about one-world government tracking of all persons; the use of such smart cards on military bases has been described as a pilot project to move the entire civilian population to a trackable, cashless society.
Biometrics such as facial recognition, and location tracking via GPS (Global Positioning Satellite), are seen as part of the same plan. The next step is implantable ID, such as the Digital Angel and Verichip products from Applied Digital Solutions. The religious Right note that these products in part fulfill the design specification of Revelation 13:16 that speaks of “a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads.”
Timothy McVeigh, the Oklohoma bomber, spoke of the army implanting a computer chip in his buttocks during the Gulf War, but more mainstream commentators now note that such technology is becoming more likely. For the conspiracyminded, high-tech ID systems are seen as systems not just for identification, but for mind control.