This sounds like a subtle, poetic notion. It's not. In American legal and cultural tradition one essential privilege of citizenship is not having to prove it on demand. If a cop swaggers up to you on the street tomorrow and asks for your name, you won't be breaking any laws if you answer "Walt Whitman" or "Mickey Mouse." Not that you have to give any name at all. Of course, there's a chance that you'll be arrested anyway (possibly on some local vagrancy ordinance of doubtful constitutionality), but even then you'll have a right to silence. In principle the line is clear: unless and until the citizen asks the state for something in return (the chance to drive a motor vehicle, say, or to fly on federally regulated aircraft), his identity, or lack of one, is purely his own business.
In practice the right to remain a cipher was largely bargained away with the New Deal. When the Social Security Act went into effect, some critics sensed a threat to personal privacy, and the government got busy reassuring them that they had nothing to fear. The deep-seated apprehension that Social Security numbers would come to serve as de facto national "dog tags" placed the Administration on the defensive and figured almost as prominently in the debate as concerns about the program's cost. (There were even rumors in the press that American workers might have to provide fingerprints as a precondition of employment.) In retrospect the furor seems almost quaint. SSNs have over the years become, with precious little public outrage, precisely what the New Dealers swore they wouldn't become—near universal digital surnames.
Softened up by passwords, PINs, and credit ratings, most Americans no longer cringe at the prospect of being reduced to numbers. The national ID cards now being proposed in the name of homeland security would, however, take the process to a whole new level, by serving not merely as bureaucratic conveniences but as high-tech surrogate selves. In the industry they call them "smart cards." Embedded computer chips, instantly readable by machines, might store anything from one's date of birth to one's racial makeup. The information on the cards themselves would hardly matter, though; the key to the system would be the databases, richly detailed and voluminous, that the cards plugged into.
At the moment, the most popular plan is to link a new, improved state driver's license into a national computer network that would be accessed every time the card was swiped. Such a card might feature a "biometric" identifier: an electronic map of, say, its owner's iris or palm print. Card readers might be installed in airports, highway-patrol cars, and government buildings—no one really knows yet. What we do know, however, is that such cards, whatever their original stated purposes, are highly susceptible to mission creep. A Social Security number becomes, in time, a check-cashing and a taxpayer ID. A smart-card driver's license might soon mutate into a license to enter professional football games or to pass across the George Washington Bridge.