The government that governs best, governs least

March 12th, 2006

Further information: freedom of movement, and ka-tzetnik, and propiska, Economic and social liberals have a generally negative attitude towards identity cards on the principle that if society already works adequately without them, they should not be imposed by government, on the principle that “the government that governs best, governs least”. Some opponents have pointed out that extensive lobbying for identity cards has been undertaken, in countries without compulsory identity cards, by IT companies who will be likely to reap rich rewards in the event of an identity card scheme being implemented.

Very often, opposition to identity cards is born out of the suspicion that they will be used to track anyone’s movements and private life, possibly endangering one’s privacy; for instance, a person will probably not want others to know he or she is attending meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous. In countries currently using identity cards, there is no mechanism for this. However the proposed British ID card will involve a series of linked databases, to be managed by the private sector. Managing disparate linked systems with a range of institutions and any number of personnel having access to them is a potential security disaster in the making.[1]

Opponents have also argued that some nations require the card to be carried at all times. This is not necessarily impractical, as an ID is no more cumbersome than a credit card. However, opponents point out that a requirement to carry an identity card at all times can lead to arbitrary requests from card controllers (such as the police). Even where there is no legal requirement to carry the card, functionality creep could lead to de facto compulsion to carry.

Some opponents make comparisons with totalitarian governments, which issued identity cards to their populations, and used them oppressively.



France has had a French national identity card since 1940, when it helped the Vichy autorities identify 76,000 for deportation as part of the Holocaust.

In the past, identity cards were compulsory, had to be updated each year in case of change of residence and were valid for 10 years, and its renewal required paying a tax. In addition to the face protograph, it included the family name, first names, date and place of birth, and the national identity number managed by the national INSEE registry, and which is also used as the national service registration number, as the Social Security account number for health and retirement benefits, for the access to the personal judiciary case, for taxes declarations.

Later, the laws were changed so that any official and certified document (even if expired and possibly unusable abroad) with a photograph and a name, issued by a public administration (or enterprise, such as railroad transportation cards, or student cards issued) can be used to prove one’s identity (such as the European driver’s licence, a passport, …). Also, controls of identy by the law enforcement forces (police, gendarmerie) can now accept copies of these documents, provided that the original is presented within two weeks. Any of these documents must be treated equally to proove one’s identity when accepting payments by checks, issuing a new credit (however credit cardsare now much more common and do not require such additional proof, as all French credit cards issued by banks include a processor requiring a four-digit code, the magnetic tape being almost never used).

The current identity cards are now issued free of charge, and non-compulsory. Legislation has been published for a proposed compulsory biometric card system, which has been widely criticised, including by the “National commission for computing and liberties” (Commission nationale de linformatique et des liberts, CNIL), the national authority and regulator on computing systems and databases. Identity cards issued since 2004 now includes biometric information (a digitized fingerprint record, a numerically scanned photograph and a scanned signature) and various anti-fraud systems embedded within the plastic-covered card.

The next generation of the French green card, named “Carte Vitale”, for the Social Security benefit (which already includes a chip and a magnetic tape with currently very few information) will include a numeric photograph and other personal medical information in addition to identity elements. It may then become a substitute for the National identity card.


United States

Main article: Identity documents in the United States

There is no true national identity card in the United States of America, in the sense that there is no federal agency with nationwide jurisdiction that directly issues such cards to all American citizens. All legislative attempts to create one have failed due to tenacious opposition from libertarian and conservative politicians, who regard the national identity card as the mark of a totalitarian society. Driver’s licenses issued by the various states (along with special cards issued to non-drivers) are often used in lieu of a national identification card and are often required for boarding airline flights or entering office buildings. Recent (2005) federal legislation that tightened requirements for issuance of driver’s licenses has been seen by both supporters and critics as bringing the United States much closer to a de facto national identity card system.


Hong Kong

See also Hong Kong Permanent Identity Cards

Hong Kong has a long history of identity document, from paper document to recently smart card. It has not yet aroused much controversy from its first issue.

Compulsory identity document was first issued in 1949, the year the establishment of People’s Republic of China. The issue of identity documents was to halt large influx of refugees and control the border from mainland China to then-British colony Hong Kong. The exercise was completed in 1951. Although the registration was compulsory, it was not required to bring the document in public area.

The identity document was replaced by a typed identity card with fingerprint, photograph and stamp from 1960. Another replacement was taken in 1973 and new card was with photograph but no fingerprint. Stamp colour was to identify permanent residents from non-permanent.

From 24th October, 1980, it is compulsory to take the identity card in public area and produce it to a policeman when asked. This law was to halt waves of illegal immigrant to the city.

In 1983, the issue of identity card was digitalised to reduce forgery and from 2003 a smartcard embedded identity card replaced the old digital cards.

The issues of card is in general giving more desire effects than harms. It helps to reduce the crime rates in the region and provide fast access to mainland China and Macau.



According to Privacy International, as of 1996, around 100 countries had compulsory identity cards. They also stated that “virtually no common law country has a card”.

For the people of Western Sahara, pre-1975 Spanish cards are the main proof that they were Saharaui citizens as opposed to recent Moroccan colonists. They would be thus allowed to vote in an eventual self-determination referendum.

Some Basque nationalist organizations are issuing para-official identity cards (Euskal Nortasun Agiria) as a means to reject the nationality notions implied by Spanish and French compulsory documents. Then, they try to use the ENA instead of the official document.


Countries with compulsory identity cards

Note: the term “compulsory” may have different meanings and implications in different countries. Often, a ticket can be given for being found without one’s identification document, or in some cases a person may even be detained until the identity is ascertained. In practice, random controls are rare, except in police states.

  • Argentina: Documento Nacional de Identidad. Issued at birth. Updated at 8 and 16 years old. Small booklet, dark green cardboard cover. The first page states the name, date and place of birth, along with a picture and right thumb print. It’s a hand written form, and the newer models have a adhesive laminate for the first page. Next pages issue address changes, wish to donate organs, military service, and vote log. Half of the pages have the DNI (a unique number), perforated through the first half of the book. Prior to DNI was the Libreta Civica (“Civic booklet”), for women, and the Libreta de Enrolamiento (“Enrollment Booklet”), for men. A few years ago there was a big scandal with the electronic DNIs that were going to be manufactured by Siemens, and it was decided that no private corporation could control the issuing of national identity. The federal police also have an identity that is valid sometimes instead of the DNI, which many people prefer to carry because after the loss of DNI there is a long process (caused only by bureaucratic reasons) in which the person is limited in some situations which require the DNI. Random controls cannot be made without a judge’s order, except in situations such as military border checkpoints.
  • Belgium: State Registry (in Dutch, French and German) (first issued at age 12, compulsory at 15)
  • Brazil: Carteira de Identidade. Compulsory to be issued and carried since the age of 18. It’s usually issued by each state’s Public Safety Secretary, or sometimes by the Armed Forces. There is a national standard, but each state can include minor differences. The front has a picture, right thumb print and signature. The verse has the unique number (RG, registro geral), expedition date, name of the person, name of the parents, place and date of birth, and other info. It’s green and plastified, officially 102 68 mm[3], but the lamination tends to make it slightly larger than the ISO 7810 ID-2 standard of 105 74 mm, resulting in a tight fit in most wallets. Only recently the driver’s licence received the same legal status of an identity card in Brazil. There are also a few other documents, such as cards issued by the national councils of some professions, which are considered equivalent to the national identity card for most purposes.
  • Chile: (Carnet de identidad; First issued at age 2 or 3, compulsory at 18)
  • China(mainland):(First issued at school age, compulsory at 16)
  • China(Hong Kong SAR) : Immigration Department (Children are required to obtain their first identity card at age 11, and must change to an adult identity card at age 18)
  • Estonia: (in Estonian), [4] (in English)
  • Germany: Personalausweis (in German) It is compulsory at age 16 to possess either a “Personalausweis” or a passport, but not to carry it. While police officers and some other officials have a right to demand to see one of those documents, the law does not state that you are obliged to submit the document at that very moment, but that you have to be able to submit it at all (bring it to the police station/municipal office the next day, or know where it is and can show it to the police at your home, etc.) You may only be fined if you do not possess an identity card or passport at all, if your document is expired or if you EXPLICITLY REFUSE to show ID to the police.
  • Indonesia: Kartu Tanda Penduduk (KTP)
  • Israel: Teudat Zehut (first issued at age 16, compulsory at 18)
  • Italy: Carta d’Identit
  • Hungary: [5] (in Hungarian) It is compulsory to possess and carry either an ID card or a passport from the age of 14. A driving license can be also used for identification from the age of 17.
  • Madagascar: Kara-panondrom-pirenen’ny teratany malagasy (Carte nationale d’identit de citoyen malagasy). Possession is compulsory for Malagasy citizens from age 18 (by decree 78-277, 1978-10-03).
  • Malaysia: MyKad. Issued at age 12 and updated at 18.
  • Netherlands: Ministry of Justice and Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations While it is not compulsory to possess an identity card, every person over 14 years of age must always carry, and be able to submit, identification (i.e., an identity card, passport, driver’s licence or aliens’ document).
  • Poland: Dowd osobisty (compulsory at 18) The relative law is roughly similar to German one.
  • Portugal: Bilhete de Identidade (compulsory at 10, can be issued before if needed)
  • Romania: Carte de identitate (compulsory at 14)
  • Singapore: National Registration Identity Card. It is compulsory for all citizens and permanent residents to apply for the card from age 15 onwards, and to re-register their cards for a replacement at age 30. It is not compulsory for bearers to hold the card at all times, nor are they compelled by law to show their cards to police officers conducting regular screening while on patrol, for instance. Failure to show any form of identification, however, may allow the police to detain suspicious individuals until relevant identification may be produced subsequently either in person or by proxy. The NRIC is also a required document for some government procedures, commercial transactions such as the opening of a bank account, or to gain entry to premises by surrendering or exchanging for an entry pass. Failure to produce the card may result in denied access to these premises or attainment of goods and services. Immigration & Checkpoints Authority
  • Slovenia: Osebna izkaznica compulsory at 18, can be issued to citizens under 18 on request by their parent or legal guardian.
  • Spain: Documento Nacional de Identidad (DNI) compulsory at 14, can be issued before if necessary (to travel to other European countries, for example). It is to be replaced by Electronic DNI.

Also Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Thailand.

Countries with non-compulsory identity cards or no identity cards

Austria, Canada (“Certificate of Canadian Citizenship”), Finland, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland have non-compulsory identity cards.

  • Sweden has recently started issuing national identity cards, but they are by no means compulsory. Most Swedes have not even seen one. Commonly people use their driving licences as ID, or a ID issued by banks or the post. Some big companies and authoritys also issue ID cards to their employees which are usually accepted inside Sweden as identification.

Denmark, Norway, the United States, the Republic of Ireland and Iceland have no official national identity cards.

Note: As noted above, certain countries do not have national ID cards, but have other official documents that play the same role in practice (e.g. driver’s license for the United States). While a country may not make it de jure compulsory to own or carry an identity document, it may be de facto strongly recommended to do so in order to facilitate certain procedures.


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