In Malta the use of ID cards is regulated by the Identity Card Act first enacted in 1976.
Typically, they were introduced as a way of addressing a very specific concern (in our case, it seems to have been the concern over the possibility of electoral fraud) and slowly, but surely, they gained a more widespread use as more and more Government departments introduced them in their transactions with the public.
Here’s an example I can distinctly remember. Fifteen years ago when I was doing my O-levels you were issued a temporary identification document by the Examinations Department. Your official ID card was given to you only later when you turned 16. Then in 1993 the Act was amended so that an official ID card would be issued to all those aged 14 or older as a way of including those students sitting for their ‘O’s. And today, teenagers who are too young to work legally or to sign contracts have to have an official ID card.
It was all done in the name of ‘convenience’ and could anyone possibly be against that? I have been socialised into this system and its convenience and I know that when I encounter officialdom I either pull out the ID card from my wallet or else chant my name and the six digits and a letter that make up my ID to the public official who asks for it. It has become an automatic reflex.
Recently a very minor and a not untypical incident served as a bit of an eye-opener. I was driving back home in the early hours of morning when I happened to encounter a police roadblock. I slowed down and the policeman signalled me to pull to the side of the road. This I did. He took a look at me and my car, noted nothing suspicious and politely asked me for my name and ID number which I gave in a typical knee-jerk reaction when asked this question by a public official. He took note and signalled me to move on.
It was while I was driving away that the question popped in my head: what was the purpose of asking drivers for their ID number at a roadblock when there was nothing that was suspect? And I could not answer that question. The policeman probably could not either. In my case giving name and ID on being asked to do so by a public official has become automatic. In the case of the police officer (and in the case of all public officials) asking the question has also become automatic.
The use of ID cards has become so generalised and they have become so deeply ingrained in our culture that nobody notices. They have become an ordinary part of our everyday lives. Now it is whoever queries these practices who is made to feel awkward, as if he were a paranoid nutcase. In 1976 when the law was introduced there were a few voices, however feeble, who protested; now there are none. And that is what is scariest. Living in an environment that requires official identification all the time is bad enough. Living in an environment that requires official identification and subtly pressuring you never to question such practices is much, much worse.