Government IDs are oppressive and intrusive. Here’s how I’d fix it.

Mic’s Vanessa Taylor has a few ideas for how to make identifying yourself in the U.S. a little less fraught.

Illustration by Peter Gamlen
How I'd Fix It

So much about the world is broken right now. The planet is boiling, inequality is skyrocketing, and government gridlock is more darkly comic than ever. The Hollywood industrial complex regurgitates old stories and makes them worse, while music execs play to the whims of the algorithms more than any sense of craft. It’s all just so depressing. How I’d Fix It is Mic’s series of solutions to society’s ills. Got a fix of your own in mind? Email features@mic.com with your pitch, and be sure to include “How I’d Fix It” in the subject line.

I’ve got beef with a lot of things in my day-to-day life. But as someone obsessed with surveillance, government IDs like driver’s licenses and the regular ol’ state IDs occupy my mind a lot. It’s because I hate them. Call me paranoid all you want, but in an ideal world, the Department of Motor Vehicles wouldn’t have my birth date, full name, random biometrics (including a picture of my face), and address compiled into a neat record. I don’t even drive. They don’t need to know me.

My discomfort with information about me being collected goes for any agency. As a Black Muslim woman, I don’t have any reason to be overjoyed by the state or federal government. You might say that government IDs are helpful, but all I think about is how one of the first identification systems in the U.S. was the slave pass. We also can’t act like personal information hasn’t been exposed in data breaches. Even if DMV and Department of Transportation breaches aren’t common, they happen, and I apparently live in the third worst state for them — what’s good, Pennsylvania.

So, I would very much like to be excused from this identification narrative. However, I’m as much of a pragmatist as I am a pessimist. I don’t think I’ll be alive to see my ideal world where identification systems are gone, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have ideas for how the generations that come after me can have it slightly better. I could rant about this issue for days, but for now, I’ll hit you with some of my top problems with IDs — and how I’d go about fixing them.

Nobody needs to know my “gender.”

For many, presenting your ID isn’t a big deal. It’s your face on a thing, right? Anyone can tell that it’s you. But any interaction where you present your ID is one where you — or more accurately, another person’s concept of you — are being policed. If you don’t match up with the official version of you dictated by whatever agency issued your document, or you don’t meet a stranger’s interpretation of who you are based on what someone else says, then you’ve got problems.

Gender markers on IDs are perhaps the biggest example of this. In 2015, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that 68% of respondents said they had to use IDs without their preferred name or gender. Of those who used IDs that didn’t match their gender presentation, over 30% said they were verbally harassed, denied benefits or services, asked to leave, or even assaulted.

“X” gender markers have been presented as a solution to this problem. While not all states use “X” markers — and those who do make up their own rules about them — it is on the rise. In October, the U.S. even issued its first passport with an “X” gender marker. But here’s the thing: There’s no reason that “gender” needs to be on an ID.

My fix doesn’t focus on the “X” or offer any alternative markers. I don’t care about any of them. I say we don’t need to have a “gender” marker at all — and I’m putting gender in quotation marks here, because it’s really just about about knowing people’s genitals, which of course opens up issues if your genitals don’t fit into society’s limited binary.

Gender markers are relatively new; the first passport gender marker didn’t come around until 1977, and it was an attempt to combat androgyny. In a memo, the State Department wrote, “[Sex markers were] recommended because the experts recognized that ... photographs had become a less reliable means for ascertaining a traveler’s sex.”

The solution to anxieties rooted in transphobia and the apparent threat posed by nonconformity was to further invade people’s privacy. Trans people being harassed and assaulted for not “matching” their IDs isn’t an accident. Gender markers were meant to get people back in line. The prevailing message is that if being trans makes using your ID hard, or even dangerous, to use, then maybe you should stop being trans. So rather than playing that gender game with the feds, we should just get rid of gender markers entirely.

Variety is good. The REAL ID can die.

In the U.S., there’s a lot of variety when it comes to state IDs because, well, each state can do its own thing. If we’re all one big happy country, then creating a uniform standard seems like a necessity. Besides, if you have a uniform standard, then you can also link ID records together into a national database.

Enter the REAL ID.

As I covered in the last section, it’s important to look at the origins of any system in the U.S. Once you do, you can see why a program is really being implemented, and you can even guess how it will manifest decades from now. With the REAL ID, I feel like I shouldn’t have to say more than: Did you know it’s part of the post-9/11 push?

I don’t trust federal legislation that comes out of 9/11. Consider it an unofficial pillar of my Islam. In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act as a way to create national identification to combat terrorism. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, “The purpose of REAL ID is to make our identity documents more consistent and secure.”

In terms of appearance, REAL IDs aren’t that different from other forms of state identification. But REAL IDs have their own minimum security standards, and now some federal agencies can’t accept other forms of identification from states that don’t meet the Real ID Act’s criteria. That’s why you need a REAL ID — or another equivalent form of identification, like a passport — to board planes, for example.

But privacy advocates have long critiqued the REAL ID as a form of security theater — something that increases the government’s knowledge about you without actually making anybody safer. The Electronic Frontier Foundation warned, “Once the IDs and database are in place, their users will inevitably expand to facilitate a wide range of surveillance activities.”

Both the EFF and ACLU pointed to Social Security numbers as a warning of what could be to come with REAL IDs. When they were created in 1936, Social Security numbers were supposed to only be used for the corresponding retirement program. Since then, the ACLU says, “That limit has been routinely ignored and steadily abandoned over the past 50 years.” Instead, Social Security numbers have essentially become a universal identifier and are now required to participate in a number of federal programs, like SNAP and Medicaid.

Since their creation, Americans have resisted multiple attempts to turn Social Security numbers into an official form of national ID. But the REAL ID gets around all of that history because it’s not technically a national ID. It just does all the same stuff as one without the name.

We shouldn’t just take this in stride. The REAL ID Act came out of America’s xenophobic panic following the 9/11 attacks, and it’s a massively underfunded program. While it faced numerous delays during previous administrations, former President Donald Trump made sure to revive the program. While the identification system we had before isn’t perfect, the REAL ID is a step in the wrong direction. Time to abandon it for good.

If the DMV has my photo, keep that on lock.

I don’t like posting my face online. You can find it, but the majority of pictures were ones I posted before I started to feel uncomfortable with it. I hate that Facebook has had access to my face for half of my life — I got an account when I was about 13, and I’m 26 now. Now, I limit how my face appears on social media, especially public accounts like Twitter and Instagram.

Given that, you can guess that photo IDs are the bane of my existence. If I had my way, I wouldn’t need a photo ID. Again, I understand that this requirement is unlikely to go away anytime soon. But if the DMV is going to insist on having my face then they better keep it to themselves.

Chances are high that your face is being used for facial recognition purposes. In 2019, The Washington Post reported that state driver’s license photos are a goldmine for facial recognition search. According to the EFF, law enforcement and government agencies can access over 641 million photos, including photos of more than half of Americans.

There’s absolutely no reason for this, either. As Sharon Bradford Franklin, director of surveillance and cybersecurity policy at the New America Open Technology Institute, told Consumer Reports, “Just because one government agency obtains sensitive personal information legally for a specific reason doesn’t mean that any other government agency should have access to that data for a range of other purposes, including possible criminal prosecution.”

There are a few ways to solve this problem. First, the National Immigration Law Center suggested there should be legislation to protect the confidentiality of photos provided when people are applying for identification documents. For example, New York’s Green Light Law, or the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, prevents federal agencies from accessing personal information through such databases. That includes specifically protecting undocumented people by preventing federal immigration agencies like ICE from accessing the New York DMV database. The NILC also recommended that states impose stricter restrictions when it comes to sharing information, like requiring a judicial warrant or court order before responding to any request from law enforcement.

These recommendations are a good starting place — but why not dream bigger? If immigration agencies can be barred from accessing DMV information, then the same should be said for law enforcement in general.

The knee-jerk reaction here is to exclaim, “Vanessa! What about all the criminals who will go free if police can’t use this resource?” But what makes the threat posed by immigration agencies so exceptionally different from the ones posed by more general law enforcement? In the U.S, the lines between immigration agencies and law enforcement are blurred already, and immigration enforcement agencies use the same arguments about criminality and defending the U.S. to justify their actions.

People having their picture taken in one specific context does not mean they are giving permission for it to be used in another wildly different one.

As far back as 2013, organizations like the ACLU warned that sharing DMV image databases with police only strengthened the surveillance state. That year, The Washington Post reported that law enforcement used these resources to create digital lineups with the faces of people who had never been arrested. By giving police access to DMV databases, they have become a sort of national identity system, twisted similarly to the ways that people sought to use Social Security.

So, more states should follow New York’s example and pursue broad legislation to ensure photos taken for identification documents cannot be used for any other purpose. Hell, the federal government could even step in on this, barring access to ID photos. Because at the end of the day, people having their picture taken in one specific context does not mean they are giving permission for it to be used in another wildly different one.

But where I see the federal government having the biggest role is tackling facial recognition. As long as this technology goes unchecked, I think agencies will always find loopholes in — or flat out ignore — laws to use it. A nationwide ban on facial recognition would eliminate the threat that DMV photo databases will be used to feed that system.

These type of bans are already happening locally. In 2019, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, banned the use of facial recognition in police investigations and municipal surveillance programs. That same year, Oakland and San Francisco followed with their own bans. Individual states have also tackled facial recognition: In June, Maine banned most government use of facial recognition.

However, these bans all have their limitations. For example, Maine’s law allows police to ask the FBI or the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles to run facial recognition searches in specific situations, like if they have probable cause. And in general, facial recognition bans tend to focus on government use, while still allowing private entities — like businesses — to continue playing around with it.

That’s a dangerous oversight when you consider how surveillance operates as its own industry. Facial recognition’s use needs to be banned by both public and private entities with no exceptions. Doing so will ensure that private businesses cannot capitalize on surveillance by offering up facial recognition services to law enforcement agencies as a loophole.

IDs suck. That’s my take. But these small changes are important to both lead people to totally overhauling these flawed systems — and to make our lives easier while we still have to live under them.