One of the first acts of the new coalition government in Britain was to undo preparations by the former Labour government to introduce a national identity card. Although I would bristle at any requirement that I have it on my person at all times, I would be delighted to have a national identity card, or even to have a small microchip implanted in my thumb, or any other convenient method of proving I am who I claim to be. But one condition: this ID could substitute for all the other cards I more or less do have to carry around on my person at all times: my credit and debit cards (personal and business), my health insurance cards (separate cards for eye doctors), my health club membership, Costco, union card (Screen Actors Guild: I don't really have to carry that one--I just do it to show off), and so on.
Drugstores and supermarkets, even bookstores, now issue cards that they expect you to have on your person whenever you pop in to buy something. The cards offer substantial discounts to people who are willing to lug them around. This is an exercise in price discrimination--arguably illegal under the antitrust laws--efficiently separating those who really need or want 50 cents off on house brand Russian salad dressing from those who can't be bothered. The bother isn't incidental--it's the point. If there was no bother, the trick wouldn't work and these cards would disappear.
A national identity number wouldn't bother me either, if it could replace all the identity numbers I'm supposed to have at my fingertips in order to conduct almost any transaction. Of course we already have such a number, our Social Security number. But privacy concerns restrict how much your Social Security number can be used in commercial transactions. Then there are passwords for websites. And security questions. If you can't remember your password, what makes them think you can remember the name of your first grade teacher's dog?
Maybe I would feel differently if my identity had ever been taken or my bank account broken into or my medical records stolen. But aren't we perhaps at a point where added security may not be worth the added cost and inconvenience?
If you've ever wondered why doctors don't do email, it's partly about getting paid, of course, but mainly about "hippa," the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. HIPAA forbids the sharing of medical information without the patient's consent. How can the doctor know that it's really you at firstname.lastname@example.org? Different doctors (or, more likely, different lawyers) interpret HIPAA differently. If your doctor tells you to see a specialist on the other side of town, you may have to go collect your records and physically take them across town yourself. (After filling out a form, of course.) It's why you get asked your date of birth half a dozen times in the course of a 20 minute appointment.
(5/24)Advice for Newsweek from Henry Luce
(5/21)Sex Lives of Supreme Court Justices
(5/18)Horses and Newspapers
(5/16)An Observation About Immigration
Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments
or send an email to the author at
mkinsley at theatlantic dot com.
You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.