@ Info Policy: No simple questions for national ID system

Robert Gellman

What sex are you?

I hope that question isn't too personal. I'll bet just about everybody reading this paper knew the answer without even looking down.

But the gender question isn't always easy to answer. It turns out that everybody isn't just M or F, and therein lies a tale. Not about gender but about identification systems. How will we define gender for ID purposes?

If we are to have any national identification system'and that is very much an open question today'we need to decide what information to collect, maintain and display. The gender issue is one of many that policy and systems people must address.

To be sure, most people are either male or female. However, sometimes a baby is born with ambiguous appearance, and it isn't always medically clear whether it's a boy or a girl. The genes may say male, but the body may look female. The parents may decide to raise a genetically male baby as a female. Surgery and drugs may influence the characterization.

So what do we write down on the ID card the baby receives at birth? Male, female or to be decided later?

Then we have people who are physically of one sex but who live as the opposite sex. Some people have surgery to transform themselves physically. How do we characterize these people, or ask them to characterize themselves?

Even more difficult is to decide how and when we account for a change in gender. Should an identification system simply reflect current gender or should it include information about changes in gender? Who decides when someone's gender has changed sufficiently to require a change in an identification system?

Who is entitled to know about a change? Don't think it doesn't matter. Gender makes a difference to schools, health care providers, pensions and insurance companies. Men and women have different medical problems and life expectancies. The liquor store clerk checking an ID for age doesn't need to know about a change in gender. A current employer might need to know, but a future employer might not. Should gender data be revealed to marketers? Gender influences the junk mail that people receive.

These gender questions are not wholly new. Different issuers of IDs, such as motor vehicle departments, the Social Security Administration or employers, have struggled with them from time to time. In some contexts, the issues are limited or not very important so the choices have been easier to make.

If we are to have a cradle-to-grave national ID system with multiple uses, we must make a series of difficult, touchy decisions that will have broad and remote consequences. The choices will not be fun, and some will raise highly charged sexual or political issues. These decisions can be made, but with a general-purpose national ID card, the country will have to make a lot of them.

I hope you didn't think that the gender issue was too difficult. Wait until you see the decisions and infrastructure needed to manage names and addresses on ID cards.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at :[email protected].

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