June 28, 2021

You are Your ID, or are You?

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

As I waited in the security line to return home at an airport recently, a large banner with the words “You are Your ID” was impossible to miss. While just an ad for CLEAR, a biometrics company that uses facial recognition software to verify identity, those words stung that morning.

Why was I so sensitive? I had lost my driver’s license while on a hike two days earlier and was pretty upset. I had gone back to the trail three times to try and find it with no luck. I looked through the car multiple times and any place else it might have fallen where I was staying, including the recycling, and even the refrigerator and pantry.

On one of the attempts to retrace my steps, I got caught in a pretty harrowing thunderstorm and had to run back to the car after a I saw a large bolt of lightning. As I ran, I told myself that the danger I had placed myself in was hardly worth it. A driver’s license can be replaced; it is just a thing; it is not part of me. I had not lost a piece of myself, despite feeling like I had. I had trouble focusing on anything else for the next two days, and reminded myself over and over that “I am not my ID.”

That the opposite would appear on a large banner as I waited in the security line, surrounded by hundreds of fortunate souls who had their IDs with them, seemed to mock me. Of course if I had paid for the CLEAR service, my face, eyes, and fingerprints could have served as my ID, perhaps saving me some angst after losing my license. (Although there have been several reports detailing significant problems with facial recognition technology, particularly in its misidentification of persons of color.)

An ID is a central part of social life in a globalized world marked by movement across large distances. This was the first time in my adult life I was about to attempt to board a plane without a government-issued ID, and I was not sure it would be possible (it was, after an extra security screening and questions from TSA, as well as showing the TSA supervisor the many other cards with my name on them in my wallet. I had photos of my passport and driver’s license, but they said that digital images were easy to alter and could not be used).

Identification cards are tangible examples of many concepts of interest to sociologists (such as globalization, stratification that is both reflected and reproduced by the uses of government-issued identification, and the social construction of reality, where we collectively imbue a card with meaning), but I will focus on the basic concept of formal social control for the remainder of this essay.

Why have a formal process of verifying a person’s identity at all? It represents a very basic attempt to hold people accountable for their actions in a social context where people largely don’t know each other. In small villages and towns where people live for generations, this is unnecessary—everyone knows who you are and your behavior is informally controlled by the desire for social acceptance. Particularly in pre-industrialized areas, one’s basic survival can be at risk if someone is shunned from the community. In industrialized and highly developed urban areas, you are less tied to the acceptance of a small group of people and might move more easily.

Formal social control became more prevalent with industrialization and the growth of cities. If you live in a metropolitan area, you probably don’t know all of the people in your community, even those on your block. You might know some people, especially if you have lived there for a long time, but you also might know very few people. The more people move around, the less likely we are to know those around us very well.

Think about this for a moment: if we don’t know people well, we might not know how trustworthy they are. Credit scores are one formal way of verifying one’s reputation through payment histories, although they are problematic on many levels, particularly for lower income people and persons of color who may have lower credit scores due to a number of factors beyond individual control. Low credit scores might in turn lead to higher interest rates or even being turned down for a job. (Remember those credit cards with my name on them that I could show TSA? If I had low credit scores I might not have had them, and thus may not have been cleared through security.)

So we have created a system to verify aspects of one’s financial behavior and criminal behavior, since we don’t know most of the people we encounter. Every time you use a bank-issued debit or credit card, the bank is essentially vouching for you to the vendor to sell you their goods and services. The issuing institution is taking responsibility for getting the money from you, freeing the vendor from the responsibility.

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, it became a national security issue to verify the identity of passengers on airplanes. Before the increasing threat of terrorism, it was possible to give or sell someone else an airline ticket if you weren’t going to use it, because no ID was needed to board a plane. When I was a college student way back when, it was common to see plane tickets listed for sale in the student newspaper.

Formal social control can both create and solve problems, and this is often linked to factors such as race, class, gender, and nationality. I have no doubt that my ability to board the plane without my driver’s license was linked to my race, class, and gender—what sociologists call social location—a privilege other people might not share.

You might be wondering about my driver’s license: a good Samaritan found it and mailed it back to me. The fact that I was hiking in an area of relative affluence meant this person likely had the time and resources to take it to the post office and send it via priority mail soon after finding it.

Are you your ID? In small communities where people mostly know each other, yes, you are. In large heterogeneous cities, though,  we are identified through formal social control, to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others.

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