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Licensing drivers has always been a sate moussining, and a with set zerficers ter ta been considerable variety in practices from sate a sate, according or an offical of the Americat Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators - Wassachusetts he ins sue o ice tres. In 1907, and South Dakota the asta inmaly, ie en uitae te soin a way of generating revenue, but gradually her teame a means of areilate and contra.

In 1950, there were an estimated £2 milion orver's icones a face throughout the United States. By 1978, that figure had sent to 4.8 milion, and sume 3 à milion sex and renewed licenses were issued that year American Assocaten of Motor Vehice Administama, 599L-I). Quite beyond its role in surveilance over trwing the trver's license tas become essential identification in a variety of other settings, such as crea asting and car rentais. So pervasive is the need for driver's licenses that by 1 I a 4 sao suet "non-driver's licenses" for those who did not drive, but who tested the documentation for other purposes Tresch and Kumbar, 1977 H-19).


Passports were first issued in North America before the Revolutionary War. It is not until 1856 that the US. federal government claimed exclusive rights to sue passports, until then these documents could also be issued by state and even local officials (US Department of State Passport Office, 1976:31) From 1801 to 1809, the State Department issued 58′′ passports, while from 1898 to 1905 they issued 108,404 (1976220). At the end of 1978 there were some 13 9 milion valid, domestically issued US passports (as distinct from those issued by US officials abroad) and some 3.2 million new passports were issued that year

The growth in passport use is attributable both to the rise in international travel and to the development of the modern state. During the 19th century, few countries required the use of passports except in wartime. The United States did not require US. nationals to use passports for travel in peacetime until 1952, and it is estimated that most US. travellers did not carry passports in peacetime until the late 1940s (1976.4).

Social Security Cards

Social Security was founded through legislation passed in 1935 (Booth, 1973:7), and 45 million accounts were opened by the end of the first year the system was in operation (Westin and Baker, 1972.33). Because of the advantages associated with participation in Social Security, the number of accounts rose quickly to approximate the number of employed persons. By mid-1983, accord

I Loren Chancellor. Registration Methods Branch Chief, Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Rockville, Maryland, May 11, 1977: personal interview.

2. Arthur Tritsch, Director, Driver Services, American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Washington, DC., May 23, 1983: telephone interview.

3. Norbert J. Krieg, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services, November 14, 1979: personal com.


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ing to a Social Security official, there were 205 million active accounts, each with a Social Security number and card corresponding to it. Some 5.5 million new accounts are being added each year. Because nearly every economically active adult in the United States has a Social Security number, the number is ideal for other surveillance and management purposes. Since 1961, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has adopted the use of Social Security numbers for ordering income tax records and for identifying taxpayers.'

Credit Cards

The earliest credit cards in the United States, available for relatively narrow ranges of products and services, appear to have been issued in the early decades of the 20th century (Rule, 1974:225). Some general-purpose cards catering to affluent users (e.g., Diner's Club, Carte Blanche) were issued in the decade or so after the Second World War. But it was not until banks began issuing credit cards to middle and even lower-middle income groups that the majority of the adult population gained access to this form of documentary relationship. Today VISA and MasterCard account for virtually all of the bank-issued credit cards in use in the United States. In 1978, there were some 52 million MasterCards and 54 million VISA cards in use, and these two systems issued some eight and 10 million new cards respectively that year (American Bankers Association, 1979) In 1979, responsibility for issuing and managing VISA and MasterCard accounts was dispersed among 10,600 and 11,000 banks respectively throughout the United States (American Bankers Association, 1979). These thousands of companies observe a variety of policies, but all maintain careful surveillance and control over issuance and use of their cards. All exchange information and other services with other surveillance and control organizations, as we discuss below. Partly because of the sophistication of surveillance and control achieved by the managers of VISA and MasterCard, the cards have become required for use in other transactions such as cashing checks and renting cars.

Bank Books

According to officials of the American Bankers Association, only a small minority of US. families had bank accounts at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1977, however. 77 percent of U.S. families had checking accounts, and 81 percent had savings accounts - including accounts both in banks and savings and loan institutions (Curtin and Neubig, 1979:22).


Organizations use systems of personal documentation to cope with people who attempt to circumvent organizational purposes by concealing or distorting information about themselves. The importance of this task warrants the considerable expense and effort of building and maintaining the bureaucratic systems which stand behind these personal documents. But how well do these bureaucratic activities serve the surveillance goals for which they are intended? One of the first things to strike us as we began this study was the wealth of apparent opportunities for circumventing the surveillance purposes of the six systems we looked at: in fact, it is easy to obtain these six personal documents under false pretenses. We make this observation not to appeal for tighter controls, but to note a sociological puzzle: personal documents which are widely regarded as authoritative, and which figure in important bureaucratic surveillance processes, often do not seem to warrant the credence placed in them.

4. Nicky Bonacci, Press Office, Social Security Administration, Woodlawn, Maryland, July 8, 1983 telephone interview.

5. Income tax was first collected in peacetime in 1913. By the eve of the Second World War, according to an IRS official, only about 8 million U.S. citizens paid federal income tax, a small minority of the adult

These weaknesses seem particularly marked where organizations must rely on applicants' own accounts, and upon documents presented by applicants, in deciding whether to issue documentary identification. For example, birth certificates are widely perceived as a basic and trustworthy form of identification and are used to generate other personal documents. Yet officials in organizations relying on birth certificates for surveillance acknowledge that these documents can be easily obtained fraudently. People who wish to conceal their true identitites may check obituaries or other death records of persons about their own age, then request a birth certificate in the name of the deceased person (U.S. Department of Justice, 1976:19). The widely varying rigor among offices issuing birth certificates makes this practice quite easy. A few states seek to restrict dissemination of certificates by requiring a signed statement establishing a “legitimate need” for the document. But others officially grant anyone the right to obtain a certified copy of any birth certificate which can be identified (1976:18). Since certificates and official copies of certificates issued in the United States provide no way of identifying the person presenting the document with the person whose birth is recorded there, consumers of birth certificates normally have only the individual's own account to establish this link.

Nevertheless, self-identification via the birth certificate plays a key role in generating other personal documents. Issuance of driver's licenses, for example, depends overwhelmingly on selfidentification by the applicant. Indeed, as recently as 1977 several states required no personal document to substantiate information on driver's license applications. Where supporting documentation is required, the birth certificate is by far the document most often used (Tritsch and Kumbar, 1977:D-I). Other documents acceptable in applying for a driver's license, such as baptismal certificates or the Social Security card, are also readily available under false pretenses. For temale applicants, the family name given on the birth certificate or other documents dating from before marriage need not agree with the name in which the license is sought. Our observations of driver's license issuance in New York State convinced us that the face-to-face transactions between applicants and staff were much too superficial to enable the latter to verify the authenticity of substantiating documents. We doubt that greater scrutiny is the rule elsewhere (U.S. Department of Justice, 1976:F-15).

Social Security cards are also issued almost entirely on the basis of self-identification. Prior to 1974, applicants were not required to produce supporting documentation (U.S. Department of Justice, 1976:24). Among documents currently used for this purpose are birth certificates, library cards, and voter registration cards, all readily obtainable under false pretenses (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1982). One official whose work involved issuing Social Security cards reported that she was instructed to issue cards on presentation of the officially required documentation, even if applicants' accounts of their background and circumstances were blatantly implausible.⚫

Passports are issued with only slightly more rigor than Social Security cards. Passport applications must be submitted in person, and passport officials are supposed to question applicants about details put forward there. This first stage of the application process is aimed at establishing The applicant's identity; one of the documents most widely used for this purpose is the driver's icense (U.S. Department of Justice, 1976:21). Passport officials are supposed to question appliants about statements on their applications and about the accompanying identification; the exhanges we onserved appeared more perfunctory than probing, lasting about 10 to 15 minutes. The application is then forwarded to a central location, where officials scrutinize further supporting documents to determine the applicant's citizenship. The document most often used for this purpose, according to passport officials, is the birth certificate.

Reliance on self-identification in the issuing of personal documentation leads to a kind of

6 Social Security official. San Francisco August 10, 1979.

chain-reaction process, in which acquisition of a birth certificate affords access to a succession of further documents. Each item of documentary identification strengthens the case for access to further items. Not only the birth certificate, but also other documents even more easily available under false pretenses - such as voter's registration cards - serve as "breeder documents," each etching the holder's documentary identity more deeply in a document-oriented world.


The dilemma facing organizations is clear. Surveillance systems are developed to enable organizations to distinguish between those worthy of friendly treatment and others. Yet selfidentification leaves the responsibility of transmitting vital data in the hands of the very people who may be tempted to seek a “better deal" of some kind by circumventing the purpose of the system.

But superior techniques of surveillance are increasingly available. Organizations can use direct channels to move personal data from points of origin to where they are needed for decisionmaking without requiring the interested individuals to act as intermediaries. Reliance on such direct checking both helps reduce the costs of dealing with individual documents on a one-by-one basis and, more importantly, obviates the weaknesses inherent in direct checking.

Direct checking is essential in screening VISA and MasterCard applications. Supporting documents are rarely required here, and crucial information provided on application forms is nearly always checked against data from independent, outside sources - usually credit bureaus. These are profit-making firms which specialize in compiling and selling data on consumers' credit-worthiness. They either confirm or supply information on applicants' current indebtedness, past payment of credit accounts, and history of litigation, liens, bankruptcies, and the like. Where data from credit bureaus are lacking, credit card firms may rely on other forms of direct checking. such as telephone contacts with applicants' employers or banks to determine their salary and financial Status. Exchange of such information among these organizations is a routine part of their clerical practice.

Direct checking also plays a key role in surveillance over the ongoing use of credit cards. VISA and MasterCard maintain elaborate systems to monitor use of their cards, both by intended users and by criminals. One way they do this is by continually analyzing records of purchases made with cards, to detect overspending and fraud. Another is by requiring that certain large charges be first cleared by telephone with the bank which issues the card (Rule, 1974.240). The latter form of direct checking sometimes leads to the arrest of fraudulent users before they leave the store. Bank Americard (predecessor of VISA) reported making 450 such arrests in California alone in 1970 (Rule, 1974:246).

Direct checking is also used in processing driver's license applications. Many states rely on their own data files compiled by state police and courts. Other states check license applications against the National Driver Register, a computerized central listing of persons whose licenses have been revoked or suspended throughout the United States. The latter practice was used in 26 states in 1977 (Tritsch and Kumbar, 1977:B-1). During 1978, the National Driver Register reported 180,000 "hits," or probable identifications of ineligible persons seeking new licenses; most of these no doubt resulted in denials of new licenses. In addition to the National Driver Register, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications Network (NLETS) acts as a central switchboard for direct checking on drivers by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States; for example, it can determine whether an out-of-state driver's license is valid where issued (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1982:40). In March 1983 alone, according to an NLETS official, this system handled about half a million such interstate inquiries.

7. Tim Sweeney, National Law Enforcement Telecommunications Network, Phoenix, Arizona, May 11, 1983:

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The six personal documentation sesens ass at a azure zi pesona zara jor area, cheating by other organizations. These lows it doe ons trancana ines are ating or incrasing importance in the national organization of mass areilance in the Chee States. The act cha more and more routine bureaucrank paper work a being done electronicains means that expanda tions have more personal data is orter one another such anticoc mucous among organor tions warrant ose action

Ironicais, birth certifications pertaps the east descoes of these sa systems in this regar Certificates and certified copies are manis avaladie, but the means of disseminating them are relatively primitive. Organizations seeking Duch certificate information must normally depend on the person whose birth is certified, because of the afficulty of identifying the source of the or tificate and obtaining it independently. New social structures and technologies which would trans mit birth certificate data directly from its source to organizational consumers – as readily, sex, as credit reports - would surely be a boon to the organizations concerned.

By contrast, data from driver s license flies are provided freely to outside interests. Police forces and other law enforcement agencies share data via the NLETS. The next most frequent users of driver's license data are undoubtedly insurance companies, who seek the data for screening and processing insurance applications. In 1976, all but two states made at least some data from a driver's record available to insurance companies. Nineteen states routinely granted access to the entire record, and many states realized significant revenues ranging from eight cents to four dol lars per inquiry (Tritsch and Kumbar, 1977 H-11). The volume of data so provided can be great The state of Illinois in 1982 answered some 2.5 million requests for data from driver's license files.

8. Jay Corcoran, Director, Information Services Staff, Department of the Treasury, US. Customa. Servion March 3, 1981: personal communication.

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