Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. Implications of a Standard Universal Identifier


The advantages of a standard universal identifier, as seen by its proponents, are easier and more accurate updating, merging, and linking of records about individuals for administrative, statistical, and research purposes. According to them, duplication and error in record keeping would be reduced. Individuals, moreover, would be relieved of the need to use many different identifying numbers; an SUI might supplant credit card numbers, personal checking account numbers, driver license numbers, and many other identifiers.

In spite of these practical advantages, the idea of an SUI is objectionable to many Americans. Even in some European countries where SUIs were introduced without opposition a generation or more ago, their use has recently raised fears and anxieties in the population. Many people both feel a sense of alienation from their social institutions and resent the dehumanizing effects of a highly mechanized civilization. Every characteristic of an SUI heightens such emotions.

  • The bureaucratic apparatus needed to assign and administer an SUI would represent another imposition of government control on an already heavily burdened citizenry.
  • To realize all the supposed benefits of an SUI, mandatory personal identity cards would have to be presented whenever called for. Loss or theft of an SUI card would cause serious inconvenience, and the mere threat of official confiscation would be a powerful weapon of intimidation.
  • The national population register that an SUI implies could serve as the skeleton for a national dossier system to maintain information on every citizen from cradle to grave.
  • An unchangeable SUI used everywhere would make it much easier for an individual to be traced, and his behavior monitored and controlled, through the records maintained about him by a wide range of different institutions.
  • A permanent SUI issued at birth could create an incentive for institutions to pool or link their records, thereby making it possible to bring a lifetime of information to bear on any decision about a given individual. American culture is rich in the belief that an individual can pull up stakes and make a fresh start, but a universally identified man might become a prisoner of his recorded past.

This Committee believes that fear of a standard universal identifier is justified. Although we are not opposed to the concept of an SUI in the abstract, we believe that, in practice, the dangers inherent in establishing an SUIwithout legal and social safeguards against the abuse of automated personal data systems-far outweigh any of its practical benefits. Therefore, we take the position that a standard universal identifier should not be established in the United States now or in the foreseeable future.3 The question can surely be re-examined after there has been sufficient experience with the safeguards proposed in this report to evaluate their effectiveness.