Electronic Identity Cards and Social Classification
Felix Stalder and David Lyon

Lyon, David (ed). Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Automated Discrimination. Routledge (Winter 2002) Chapter 4

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Establishing the stable identities of its subjects has been one of the central concerns of the modern nation state (Higgs 2001; Torpey 2000). It is a key means of connecting citizen and state. Social services, law enforcement and national security are all based on the state's ability to connect embodied people to established records reliably. The goal is to classify each individual in context flexibly yet accurately - for example, as legitimate recipient of child support, repeat offender, or illegal immigrant - in order to determine which administrative procedure to apply.

Each of these domains has powerful institutional interests in expanding the accuracy with which individuals are identified. From the Victorian era, when voting lists and demographic data were sought (Abercrombie et al. 1986) to the economic restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s when fiscal management and fraud became prominent concerns, the modern nation state has tried to refine its identification of citizens. Which set of incentives figures most prominently in the public discussion depends on the political climate of the moment, but together they have been the engine of the increase in frequency and accuracy of anchoring individuals within the state's administrative matrix.

In the wake of spectacular "terrorist" attacks in different parts of the world, concerns over national security have often taken center stage. With them, the idea of establishing national ID cards for all citizens - or for a subset, such as immigrants and refugees (see, for example, Zureik 2001) - have resurfaced.This happened, for example, in the UK in the mid 1990s in reaction to bombings of the IRA, in Spain in the late 1990s following a string of assassinations by the Basque separatist group ETA, and in North America in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

The more recently proposed ID cards stand in a marked contrast to those that have traditionally been used in many countries. They are no longer simple paper-based documents but sophisticated high-tech devices using a mix of traditional and advanced identification features (biometrics) and, by virtue of being machine readable, they can connect more easily with remote databases and authentication mechanisms. Some proposed "smart" cards are not only machine readable, but themselves contain programmable chips that store data.

Whenever ID cards are proposed, privacy concerns are raised, usually under the metaphor of the state becoming an all-seeing "Big Brother." These concerns are often countered with the argument of the existence of a trade-off between civil liberties and national security, and that the loss of civil liberties through ID cards is minor and the gain in national security is major, hence the trade-off, though perhaps regrettable, is, overall, positive. But is this really the case? Is there a trade-off and, if so, to which side is the balance tipped?

In this chapter, we critically examine this recurring interest in ID cards as a means to improve domestic security. First, we review the checkered history of the implementation of and resistance to high-tech ID cards since the early 1990s. Then we examine the collusion of forces that, whenever the public seems willing to accept them, lead to a renewal of interest in these systems despite their questionable usefulness. Thirdly, we analyze structural flaws in ID card systems that limit their usefulness to national security. Finally, given the limited role these cards can play in securing our countries, we look at the unintended consequences in order to understand the true nature of the trade-off that high-tech ID cards present us with. These consequences, whether intended or not, include social sorting of a sophisticated kind.


The full chapter is availabe upon request. Please contact the authors.