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Industry Comment: Will National Identity Cards Be The Next Step?

It's technically possible to build "smart cards" to identify citizens. But Bob Rubin wonders whether Americans would accept such a measure?
When I wrote The Day Our Lives Changed several weeks ago, we had just experienced a great national tragedy. I discussed the hard choices we would face as we determined the value of increased security vs. the potential loss of some personal freedoms.

I expected passionate comments from readers. I wasn't disappointed. The responses were many and varied in tone. The E-mails ranged from "Thanks so much for the heartfelt, enlightening article" and "This is a time to keep minds open" to "I don't know if you are trying to dishearten others for personal gain, or you are a coward."

One issue I raised was national personal identity cards. If such a measure went through, we'd each have to show a biometric-based card before boarding an airplane or training to operate a hazardous chemical vehicle.

I'm not the only person to think about this. The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, George Gekas, is considering proposing national identification cards as one way to tighten security. At least four of the hijackers used false passports to acquire driver's licenses. Unfortunately, passports and driver's licenses aren't that difficult to forge. With either one, and a Social Security number from a deceased person (easy to obtain on the Internet), new identities can be built and old ones hidden.

According to The Wall Street Journal, fewer than a dozen states have the ability to check with the Social Security Administration to see if license-applicant names match Social Security numbers. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a sweep found that 21 foreign nationals from countries linked to terrorism had obtained fraudulent operator's permits to transport hazardous material. The Pennsylvania transportation secretary said that a nationwide driver's license data system, with a real-time lookup capability, would have caught the applicants.

In an interview with a San Francisco television station, Larry Ellison, chairman and CEO of Oracle, supported the idea of a national ID card. He said that such a card, equipped with a photograph and digitized thumbprint, could be issued to all U.S. citizens as a means of helping to prevent future terrorist attacks. Ellison said the information could be verified through a centralized database and has even offered to give the necessary software free to the government.

Although the White House has said that the administration doesn't intend to pursue a national identification card system, isn't it reasonable to expect increased pressure for a national foolproof system of identification? And, if that happens, what are the implications?

The first implication is clear. Just as the Social Security number has become the digital identifier of choice, the driver's license is the most common personal identifier. We use it to cash checks, to prove that we are who we say we are when boarding a plane, and in innumerable other encounters.

The second implication is also clear. A national identification card would quickly be linked to Social Security numbers. We would have a system that could keep tabs on all legal residents in this country. By exclusion, short-term visitors would quickly be identified whenever they passed through an airport or train station.

Could it be built? Yes. The U.S. Department of Defense is actively engaged in implementing a smart ID card for military use. The military smart card ties together human resources, payroll, and other Department of Defense personnel databases. It certainly wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for its smart card to serve as a model for a nationwide system.

But, would we accept a national identity card? The increase in security for our citizens would be real. Indeed, there also would be some attractive side benefits, from a reduction in cloned credit cards and stolen identities to the ease of checking into a hotel room simply by swiping an ID card and providing a face scan or thumbprint. Other conveniences would abound.

Yet, on the negative side, we would have arrived at the dream of every totalitarian government ever in power: the ability to know exactly what its subjects are doing (and buying) with a precision never before possible.

As I said in my earlier column, we should think carefully about the long-term implications of our actions. I also made clear my personal belief that, when the desire for individual rights collides with a consensus that we are too vulnerable to terrorism, the result is always the same: the populace will choose safety.

What should we do? The argument will be a long one. Whatever your viewpoint, don't assume that the issue won't arise.

Robert M. Rubin is CEO of Valley Management Consultants, a firm specializing in E-business and information technology strategy, organizational design, and evaluation. Prior to joining VMC, he was senior vice president and CIO for Elf Atochem North America, a $2 billion diversified chemical company. The recipient of multiple industry awards, he is a contributing editor to InformationWeek and a member of its advisory board. He can be reached at [email protected].