Feds Consider New Antiterrorist Smart-Card Technology

But national ID cards face strong opposition


The ability of the Sept. 11 terrorists to obtain forged identifications and airport credentials has prompted the federal government to consider new technologies for authenticating the identities of airline passengers and employees, aviation security personnel and federal employees with access to secure facilities.

The White House reiterated last week that it has no plans to introduce a national ID card. But officials from the Justice Department and other federal agencies, along with House minority leader Richard Gephart (D-Mo.), are clearly interested in ID card technology. Last week, they invited Dan Kehoe, president and CEO of Los Gatos, Calif.-based UltraCard Inc., to Washington to demonstrate his company's UltraCard smart-card technology.

Security officials are interested in the UltraCard because it has unique storage capabilities that overcome the limitations of current smart cards to store multiple sets of biometric data, such as fingerprints, high-resolution iris scans and voiceprints.

The UltraCard is capable of storing 20MB of data, whereas traditional smart cards store only 64KB. The lack of storage capacity has been the main stumbling block in the use of biometrics in smart cards, said Don Mann, chief technology officer at UltraCard.

"To do full security without false acceptance, you need more than one biometric," said Mann. "You need more than one fingerprint; [you need] a virus scan and a high level of encryption," he said. It takes 120KB to store a single FBI-level fingerprint, Mann said.


Getting Carded

How the UltraCard compares with a traditional smart card:

UltraCard: 20MB of storage

Smart card: 64KB of storage

UltraCard: Applies hard disk drive technology to credit card-size smart card.

Smart card: Cost and size increase along with capacity.

UltraCard: $5 to $6

UltraCard Reader: $100


The Bush administration's reluctance to push for a national ID card comes as no surprise to those familiar with the thorny political issues surrounding the proposal. The Clinton administration and Congress entertained the idea in 1998, when agencies suggested using ID cards to track information on foreign workers, health care recipients and parents who are behind in child support payments. Past legislative proposals failed due to concerns about potential privacy violations, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have rekindled the debate.

The idea of a national ID card is not without its proponents. Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison has offered the government the software necessary to build the infrastructure for a national ID card system free of charge.

An Oracle spokesman confirmed Ellison's pledge but said the company had no details on the type of software Ellison had in mind.

Ellison's suggestion to build a central database has been one of the key areas of concern for members of Congress and privacy groups. The UltraCard, on the other hand, would avoid that problem by enabling authorities to conduct local authentication without having to transmit biometric data across the Internet "to a hackable database," said Mann. All of the biometrics and algorithms could be stored on the card.

Donna Farmer, CEO of the New York-based Smart Card Alliance, an industry group representing 185 technology providers, said that while she isn't familiar with the details of the UltraCard's capabilities, many of the 64KB cards that are now available are multiple-application cards and have some capabilities to support biometrics and multiple encryption-key processing.

In fact, the Defense Department in May began rolling out 7,000 smart cards as part of its Common Access Card (CAC) program. The CAC uses public-key infrastructure certificates and a central database known as the Real-time Automated Personnel Identification System. Fingerprint images, however, aren't stored on the card for privacy reasons.

According to Farmer, the policy issues surrounding personal privacy and the development of a national ID card remain the driving force behind the reluctance to expand the technology's use.

"There are a lot of issues that get wrapped up in the national ID discussion that have nothing to do with the technology," said Farmer, who has also served as legal counsel to the House Science Committee. "We still have all of the policy and procedure issues that we've had before. We're trying to be sensitive to the fact that it's still just a tool, and it won't fix every possible problem."

UltraCard plans to ship the first set of cards to government agencies in China and Europe in the first quarter of next year. However, production could be placed on a fast track for delivery in the U.S. at the same time or sooner, Kehoe said.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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