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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > The Privacy Card: A Low-Cost Strategy to Combat Terrorism


Book Review: The Privacy Card: A Low-Cost Strategy to Combat Terrorism, Joseph W. Eaton, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 224 pages

In a new foreword to this re-issued book, national ID proponent Amitai Etzioni says that it “lays out the issues and the evidence in a most compelling way.” Not true.

The Privacy Card, authored by now-Professor Emeritus Joseph Eaton at the University of Pittsburgh, was first published as Card-Carrying Americans in 1986. The passage of time allows “dated” to join the list of adjectives that can be applied to this turgid, dense, and disorganized book.

Eaton is one of the rare authors to advocate in favor of a national identification system. This makes his book an item of special interest. His VIP card – short for “Valid Identification Program” – has one merit: a catchy acronym. Were all Americans were forced to carry a 'VIP' card, perhaps they would all feel like one. This is an unfunny Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above average and all adults are VIPs.

Otherwise, Eaton rehashes – or perhaps just makes a hash of – standard arguments in favor of a national ID. A fraud- and forgery-proof national ID would make immigration control and prevention of illegal working easier. Such a thing would help prevent fraud in private transactions and in the disbursement of public benefits. It would limit the mobility of fugitives and turn up deadbeat parents. And it would make it harder for identified terrorists to operate using false names (forcing them to stay unidentified until they strike).

All these benefits rely on the assumptions that Eaton and most other advocates glide past: that fraud and forgery in the issuance of identification documents can be prevented. The likelihood of these – indeed, the inevitability if we are to remain a somewhat free and open society – detract from the supposed benefits of a national ID. In the case of terrorism control, likely fraud and forgery make security systems extremely brittle.

But Eaton does not have a hard-headed, real-world plan. He says nothing of the checkpoints and government monitoring that would actually deliver the alleged benefits of a national ID. The book is full of “would”s and “could”s – an exercise in imagination with few tethers to real-world practicalities.

This is not to say that Eaton does not bring facts to the table. He cites dozens of different programs in the U.S. and abroad, plentiful studies, technologies (including the new copy cards at his university), and laws that were proposed or recently passed in 1986. But Eaton does not use this evidence to bring forward a cogent argument or unpack where a national ID system, or some element of one, has benefits over the status quo or alternatives. It is just description.

Nor does Eaton organize his argument. The chapter and section headings in the book border on fraudulent. To find his point on an issue, one must sort through a dizzying thicket of side-issues and dead-ends. Worst, perhaps, Eaton has infected the writing through and through with the dreaded passive voice.

Only a slim reed justifies the re-issued title of The Privacy Card: If people sifting through masses of data about all Americans were themselves identified, they could be held accountable for any wrongdoing. This would allegedly protect privacy. In fact, were such a method universally practiced and reliable, it would amount to a salve on privacy already lost. The book has probably been issued under this new title to capitalize on the current vogue for privacy issues and concern with terrorism.

If The Privacy Card has a merit, it is the window it provides on to the national ID debate. The national ID issue has yet to be fully explored, the consequences of a national ID have not fully been considered, and the foundation for a national ID system has not been laid.

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[updated 03/07/05]



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