Some countries issue formal identity documents, such as national identification cards that may be compulsory or non-compulsory, while others may require identity verification using regional identification or informal documents.

When the identity document incorporates a person’s photograph, it may be called a photo ID. In the absence of a formal identity document, a driver’s license may be accepted in many countries for identity verification. Some countries do not accept driver’s licenses for identification, often because in those countries they do not expire as documents and can be old or easily forged. Most countries accept passports as a form of identification. 

A version of the passport considered to be the earliest identity document inscribed into law was introduced by King Henry V of England with the Safe Conducts Act 1414. For the next 500 years up to the onset of the First World War, most people did not have or need an identity document. Photographic identification appeared in 1876 but it did not become widely used until the early 20th century when photographs became part of passports and other ID documents such as driver’s licenses, all of which came to be referred to as “photo IDs“.

Both Australia and Great Britain, for example, introduced the requirement for a photographic passport in 1915 after the so-called Lody spy scandal. The shape and size of identity cards were standardized in 1985 by ISO/IEC 7810. Some modern identity documents are smart cards that include a difficult-to-forge embedded integrated circuit standardized in 1988 by ISO/IEC 7816. New technologies allow identity cards to contain biometric information, such as a photographfacehand, or iris measurements; or fingerprints. Many countries issue electronic identity cards.

Law enforcement officials claim that identity cards make surveillance and the search for criminals easier and therefore support the universal adoption of identity cards. In countries that don’t have a national identity card, there is concern about the projected costs and potential abuse of high-tech smartcards. In many countries – especially English-speaking countries such as AustraliaCanadaIrelandNew Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States – all citizens have no government-issued compulsory identity cards. Ireland’s Public Services Card is not considered a national identity card by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP), but many say it is in fact becoming that and without public debate or even a legislative foundation.

There is debate in these countries about whether such cards and their centralized databases constitute an infringement of privacy and civil liberties. Most criticism is directed towards the possibility of abuse of centralized databases storing sensitive data. A 2006 survey of UK Open University students concluded that the planned compulsory identity card under the IdentityCards Act 2006 coupled withcentral government database generated the most negativeresponse among several options. For example, all vehicle drivers must have a driving license, and young people may need to use specially issued “proof of age cardswhen purchasing alcohol.


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