Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: The government of India wants to keep track of all the people living in that country — all 1.2 billion of them. It plans to issue plastic identity cards with a microchip in each that would contain biometric information about the holder. The information would perhaps contain an eye scan, fingerprints, national status, credit history or criminal records. The idea is to give each Indian a unique identity, one that would not be stolen or used by others. Into that database the government could store anything about everyone. Can it really be kept private, or would this become a goldmine for hackers? This kind of identity card is catching on around the world, used in about 100 countries at present. Is this kind of card a benefit or a problem? Is it true that Indians need to carry as many as 20 different identity cards and will this one replace any of them?
Ashok Malik, senior writer, Hindustan Times, Pioneer, New Delhi, India: It will replace almost all those cards, because 20 cards do make the average wallet difficult to carry. Privacy has been a big issue here, as it has been with other countries with such cards. After the terrorist act in Mumbai last year, people do recognize for reasons of security we do need some sort of database. The utility factor is trumping privacy concerns. I appreciate that you are giving Big Brother a lot of information, but they are going to be useful.
Loory: How will they get cards to 1.2 billion people in such remote areas?
Malik: They have several databases to start with. India has one of the world’s oldest and most rigorous censuses, conducted every 10 years. It goes into every remote village. The databases are being put together under a new agency, headed by Nandan Nilekani — the Bill Gates of India. He gave up his corporate job to join the government. In three years, he is supposed to get every Indian citizen and resident a unique number.
Loory: There is talk of such a card as well in Israel?
Dan Izenberg, law reporter, Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem, Israel: There is a law that is ready to be presented to the Knesset at Parliament next week, which would produce a biometric system and databank. It is pretty imminent now.
Loory: Is there general consensus that this is a good idea?
Izenberg: The press was caught napping because of the way it was done in parliament. Throughout the procedure of preparing and drafting it, the parliamentary committee worked with virtually no discussion about it at all. Most people didn’t know about it until in the last week or two.
Loory: Is it felt that this will make security easier?
Izenberg: The head of the committee that shepherded this bill through says that 350,000 people, in a country of seven million, have fraudulent identity documents in the current system. Forgery is a simple thing to do here.
Loory: In the U.K., there is talk of such cards for people coming into the country?
Henry Porter, bureau chief, Vanity Fair, political columnist, Observer, London: Yes. The British ID card is compulsory for residents who were born abroad. This law is three or four years old. Originally, the support was about 61 percent before anyone considered the issues. Now, support is about 79 percent against ID cards. People are making the argument that it is not just about privacy, which is serious anyway; it is about transfer of power from the individual to the state. The state sells to the British people the idea that ID cards are useful to identify themselves, but actually it is a mechanism for the state to identify and monitor people. The central database here will carry a vast amount of information. This can be transferred to various departments, like the tax man. The vast number of people now are against it because they feel they are losing something essential to a free society.
Loory: Would the individuals who must have the cards have access to their own data?
Porter: Not under our laws. Every possible agency has access to your file, but you do not.
Loory: What is the situation in the U.S., and how would Americans feel about such a card?
Thompson: We do have national ID numbers, Social Security numbers since the 1930s. There is massive resistance to national ID cards. A law (REAL ID Act) passed four years ago that required all states to have the same information on the card and make them more secure. The states resisted; some filed for extensions. The Department of Homeland Security gave them extensions, and then a big critic of this bill (Janet Napolitano) was made the head of the Department. If terror attacks occur and people believed that a national ID card would prevent that, then there may be some movement that direction.
Porter: The Madrid train bombers all had ID cards; the terrorists from 9/11 had ID cards and passports. Identification makes absolutely no difference in somebody’s potential danger as a terrorist.
Malik: All of our societies are giving away some of our freedoms in the belief that we are more secure. In London, New Delhi, many other cities, there are cameras all over the place eating away at your privacy for years.
Thompson: Henry, your cameras talk to people, they don’t just watch you, right?
Porter: We have a big problem with a government that is trying to take a great number of liberties from the people in Britain. It happened stealthily while the boom has been going on. There is a very widespread movement, which is acutely conscious of what is going on, to say that this continues unopposed is wrong.
Loory: In this country we already have the cameras, and through our drivers’ licenses, credit cards, bank transactions, our records are all over the place and we have no access to them.
Thompson: In the U.S., there is huge resistance to government invasion of privacy. But, when it comes to the private sector and the Internet, we don’t have as many concerns. We don’t care that Google reads all of our e-mails and then sells us ads based on what is in those e-mails.
Loory: It seems that if we could get access to the government database ourselves, it would help reverse the invasion of privacy problem.
Thompson: In the U.S., due to privacy concerns, you can’t get your own health records, which is frustrating and really bad for patients. Some people say it is much better if everybody could look at everybody’s records. And, if you were to (conceal names) and compile them, people could look for patterns to advance medicine. There are places where giving up some privacy has benefits and America’s concerns about privacy have actually caused problems.
Malik: The idea of a national health network is big for the advocates of the national ID cards in India.
Porter: In this extraordinarily rapidly developing world, it is crucial that the individual maintains some kind of independence from the state. This is more of a philosophical need than anything about privacy. The reverse is going on in Britain. It is also important to examine the vast amounts of information being scooped up by Yahoo and Google. We have to watch these fragile freedoms that we were born with so they don’t disappear in our lifetimes, and that we can’t hand them on to our children.
Loory: Have these issues not come up in Israel because this law has been going through the Knesset by stealth?
Izenberg: That’s not the reason. The culture and psychology in Israel is different than the other countries. It is taken for granted that for reasons of security we have to carry these things to identify ourselves. The people against the bill didn’t argue against the need of a smarter ID. They opposed using biometric data and databanks. They were afraid that it might leak.
Loory: Do the experts in the U.S. feel this would help enhance security?
Thompson: I think people overall think it probably would enhance security, but there is a vocal and intelligent minority that believe that the risks of sabotage and hacking into information could lead to a net undermining of security.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.