Sixty years ago this week, Clarence Harry Willcock refused to show his identity card when stopped by police in Finchley, London. In short order, he became the last person in the United Kingdom to be prosecuted for refusing to show a national identity card. It’s an interesting history lesson — unless the pendulum is swinging back in the direction of national identification.
As re-told in some detail on Wikipedia, compulsory identity cards were re-introduced in the U.K. during World War II. After the war ended, the policy of requiring them to be carried and shown to authorities on demand did not. Five years after Germany’s surrender, Mr. Willcock, a 54-year-old dry cleaning manager, was stopped by police while driving and ordered to produce his national identity card. He refused to show it then or at a police station within 48 hours.
“I am a Liberal,” he reportedly quipped, “and I am against this sort of thing.” Convicted under the National Registration Act of 1939, he was fined ten shillings.
His case became a bit of a cause célèbre, and after the defeat of the Labour Government in 1951, the Conservative Government of Winston Churchill pledged to get rid of the identity card scheme. It did so despite the opposition of the police and security services.
Is this story a minor historical footnote, or a rare reprieve from never-ending growth in governments’ power to identify, track, and control?
In the United States, the REAL ID Act of 2005 seeks to require states to issue drivers’ licenses and identification cards according to federal data standards that make them easy to scan nationwide. REAL ID also requires states to share data about their drivers across a national database network.
REAL ID joins other programs — the TSA’s identity checks, E-Verify employment authorization, the FBI’s “Next Generation Identification” system (a massive database of biometric identity information), facial recognition systems, and even automated license plate reading — in weaving together governmental tracking infrastructure more comprehensive than anything Mr. Willcock could have imagined. And it’s all aimed at law-abiding citizens.
In key states around the country, state legislators are debating whether to comply with REAL ID. The incoming Trump administration has made national E-Verify a prominent plank in its immigration policy. And technology vendors are working with police agencies nationwide to promote tracking systems of many kinds. The security on offer is sometimes real, sometimes illusory, often expensive, and generally poorly debated.
We can do better than to imagine ourselves or our children being some future Clarence Willcock. Rather, we should refuse the creation of programs like REAL ID, which offer no security benefit worth their cost. When programs offer net security benefits, federal and state policy should sharply constrain the collection and retention of data about innocent American citizens and residents, so that their privacy and liberty costs are controlled. The TSA and the E-Verify program should be stood down entirely.
But should the need grow to a critical point, each of us should be ready to refuse, stoutly telling authorities, “I am against this sort of thing.”