Are Government-Issued ID Cards the First Step Toward Mass Mind Control?

Id card from Albania Albania/Wikimedia Commons

Albanians are issued a hack-resistant, digital national ID card called the Letërnjoftimi. It comes with a cool hologram and a biometric chip that can be read wirelessly.

At the bottom of some drawer in my New York City apartment, I have a rotting white cardboard rectangle that shows my nine-digit Social Security number in a typeface that looks like it came from a Smith-Corona typewriter. It's supposed to serve as my all-purpose identifier for life.

So, yeah, when it comes to an ID that serves as a gateway to modern economic activity, the U.S. is 80 years behind a nation where nearly half the population is employed growing olives and figs.

The federal government and pretty much all of industry have known for decades that the Social Security number needs to be put out of our misery. You can find reports from the 1970s that document concern about using SSNs for identification. Over the past 10 years, as mobile phones, social media and cloud computing have opened up every aspect of our lives to the possibility of privacy invasion, experts and activists have grown more vociferous on the topic. Then, over the summer, the Equifax data breach released 143 million SSNs into the wild, like spores wafting off a hilltop of dandelions.

After the Equifax screwup, anyone with a cerebrum realized an SSN is about as secret as Kim Kardashian's sex life. And we all know Equifax will not be the end of such disasters. It's not as if we've eliminated hacking the way we got rid of smallpox.

Think of the insanity of our Mister Rogers–worthy identification scheme at a time when we have robots that can do brain surgery and artificial intelligence software that can run hedge funds better than hedge fund managers. You get assigned nine numbers that allegedly prove you are you for your average American life expectancy of 78.8 years. Too bad if the number gets stolen or abused. It's less hassle to change your sex than to change your SSN.

Social Security was created in 1935 and the first card issued a year later, when electronic computers seemed about as feasible as time travel through wormholes. The cutting-edge technology of the day was the IBM tabulating machine, which stored data on cards punched with holes. To track citizens' pay and benefits, the Social Security system needed to identify every person while using as little data as possible. Turned out nine numbers would do it—three digits indicating the person's geographic location, a two-digit "group number" that helped sort the information and a four-digit serial number. (This later changed to nine random digits.)

The number was never intended to do anything but track Social Security benefits. Yet the government passed no laws restricting use of SSNs. In the 1940s, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the government started the mission creep of the SSN by encouraging other federal agencies to use it to identify people. In 1962, the IRS made it your identity number for taxes. Legislation in 1970 made banks and securities dealers obtain SSNs for customers, so the IRS could track transactions. By that point, all sorts of businesses began asking for SSNs because it was an established way to identify individuals. Now, it seems like you give out your SSN for everything short of buying Pop-Tarts at the corner store.

The SSA never wanted this. In 1971, says its website, a "task force studied issues raised by nonprogram use of the SSN and proposed that SSA take a 'cautious and conservative' position and do nothing to promote its use as an identifier." Still, no one stopped the widespread adoption of SSNs as America's ID.

The problem, of course, is that a nine-digit permanent number is easily stolen or copied, and it says nothing tangible about the person it's attached to. That means someone can take your number and claim they're you with impunity. The Albanian card combats this with data such as fingerprints and a signature. More data about a person makes identity theft even harder.

But here we get to a big political reason it's been difficult for the U.S. to swap out the SSN for something that uses more robust data. Even a hint at such a program gets the Alex Jones crowd riled up about a government-issued ID that of course would be the first step toward mass mind control and, ultimately, enslavement.

Technology offers some tantalizing solutions that might get around those Big Brother fears. Blockchain technology—the stuff behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies—could store identity data about you in an encrypted digital lockbox you control. If a bank wants to verify who you are, you get to decide what information the bank can see and give the bank a one-time software key, so a loan officer can take a look. Your ledger on the blockchain would track every time anyone accesses your information, so you could always check to see if there's a problem. Estonia has operated a blockchain-based national ID system since 2007, noted Michael Mainelli, co-author of The Price of Fish: A New Approach to Wicked Economics and Better Decisions . "The scheme is so useful that non-nationals use it for their personal digital signatures elsewhere in Europe," Mainelli wrote in Harvard Business Review .

A little further out, AI software could mimic the way people identified one another for thousands of years prior to 1935: We simply recognized someone because we knew that person. How do you recognize a college classmate who's lost 90 pounds since you last saw her 30 years ago? It's a combination of facial recognition, voice recognition and shared information—like both of you knowing the name of a skeezy professor or that the cafeteria mac and cheese tasted like plaster. Of course, the new iPhone now comes with facial recognition, and before long, technologies like Alexa and Siri will be able to distinguish your voice from others.

AI should be able to handle that last piece about shared information. These days, much of our lives is online, where we constantly generate data about significant events. We post on social media, buy stuff, keep our calendars, make travel plans. A third-party AI could watch all of that and understand a lot about you. If a bank wanted to verify your identity, it could ask the third-party AI to have a conversation with you. Hey, remember that hike around the lake last year—where was that? Did you have Mrs. Silfer in first grade? In a minute, it could know if the person is an impostor.

Still, a real solution for the SSN problem seems far off. There are no serious efforts in the works. It might take a few more Equifaxes before the U.S. finally decides to catch up to a nation that didn't have a modern telecommunications system until 1990.