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West Germans wary of '1984'-style ID card

A new ID card - its critics claim - is bringing George Orwell's Big Brother world of ''1984'' closer in West Germany. But its proponents claim the new laminated, forgery-proof, washing-machine-proof identity card is essential to protect society against terrorists.

A suit has just been filed to test the card's constitutionality, and the protest movement that earlier won a court injunction against this year's planned census on civil rights grounds is gearing up for a major campaign on the issue.

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Thus rages the latest feud between a Conservative government that is championing law and order and civil rights advocates. Aptly or not, the card is to be introduced in 1984.

West Germany already has a unified system of compulsory ID cards for citizens , and it is not in dispute. The system itself does not raise the kind of visceral horror here that the concept always does when proposed in the United States. But the form of the new card is highly controversial - especially its readability by machine.

A machine-readable card, argues just-retired data protection commissioner Hans-Peter Bull in the latest issue of the weekly Die Zeit, would allow much more intrusive recording and storing by state agencies of the movements of innocent persons. Unless legal barriers were erected, it would also allow fairly low-level policemen to make fishing expeditions through other irrelevant personal information in other government agencies.

As planned, the card would be presented at border crossings for a check against a central police computer. (In Western Europe, especially between member countries of the European Comunity, passports often are not checked at frontiers.)

Dr. Bull objects to the government's assurance that data protection officials were consulted in drawing up guidelines for the new ID cards on the basis of 1980 legislation. He and state data protection officials were consulted, he says , but their recommendations that the card not be machine-readable were ignored.

The new federal data protection commissioner, Reinhold Baumann, has no such qualms. He took office in May saying that fears of a ''1984''-style surveillance state are ''unjustified'' as long there is a free parliament. He said data protection does not always have priority over security and should not be ''a battle cry against the administration.''

Nor do the ruling Conservatives have any qualms. A spokesman for Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union has derided Mr. Bull and ''his ideological comrades primarily in the camp of the Green-Reds (i.e., ecologists and Socialists).'' And a brochure the government has just issued praises the planned ID cards for making possible ''a faster and more intensive border control'' for locating criminals.

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The government sees no dangers for ordinary citizens in a card that carries a photo, name, birthdate, eye color, height, citizenship, signature, and address. The card number, the brochure says, may be registered only with the federal printing office (and with local identification authorities), and the federal office may not store any further data about cardholders.

The difficulties between present data protection commissioner Baumann and his predecessor Bull neatly personify the one major policy difference between the 10 -month-old center-right government and its 13-year-old center-left predecessor. The present government emphasizes security despite the cost in civil rights. The last government emphasized civil rights (with some exceptions) despite the cost in security.

To be sure, the data protection commissioner is not a member of the government and serves independently of it. But the previous Liberal interior minister was himself a strong civil rights advocate and backed Bull in his view of his office as one of ombudsman.

The new interior minister, Friedrich Zimmermann of the Christian Social Union , is a law-and-order advocate who welcomes Baumann's intentions to stay out of the limelight.

Typically, press articles in the last few months of Bull's incumbency covered the commissioner's attempts to prevent one government agency from reading personal data about citizens filed in another agency. Sample headlines read ''Bonn (government) declines to give Bull access to documents,'' ''Bull wants stricter preconditions for transfer (of data),'' ''Data protector Bull again ascertained violation of rights.''

Typically, headlines in the first two months of Baumann's incumbency read, ''A good boy instead of an awkward one?'' and ''Discreet attempts to reduce fear'' about Orwellian domestic spying.

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