Opinion: It's time for a national ID card

When Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison proposed the creation of a national ID card program and offered to donate the database software to support it, he elicited reactions ranging from disdain to skepticism. Both the Bush administration and consumer advocates opposed or lacked interest in the idea. They were joined by a variety of other voices, including the following:

  • Civil libertarians, who fear Big Brother-type invasions of privacy.
  • Segments of the IT community distrustful of a single-vendor solution or one that creates complex and costly problems associated with real-time maintenance of an ID card system.
  • Other industry voices who would rather see the private sector build and maintain the system rather than the federal government.
  • Elements within the government who say only the IRS or the U.S. Postal Service can institute and oversee an ID program.

While many of these arguments are compelling, I believe all of them can be overcome. In addition, when reality-checked, some of these arguments start to crumble. For example, regarding the loss of privacy, companies across the country are already gathering enormous amounts of personal information on us. Our purchases, transactions and movements are tracked by our Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, boating license numbers, telephone numbers, IP addresses, cell phone numbers, passport numbers and even grocery store discount cards, to name a few. The government can access all of this data with court-issued search warrants and subpoenas if it needs to.

As far as the complexity and cost arguments go, a national ID card could actually cut down on some of the cost and complexity we live with now. An ID card could eliminate the need to carry other forms of government-issued identification, such as driver's licenses, passports and Social Security cards.

And there are other benefits as well. Wouldn't you like law enforcement agents to know who is buying a handgun? Wouldn't you want law enforcement agencies on the local, state and federal levels to be able to efficiently trade information about suspects and criminals? A national ID card would allow that to happen.

Getting past the challenges

Many organizations have struggled with the concept of how to use digital signatures and public-key infrastructure (PKI) to better serve their customers, reduce costs and provide stronger security. The problem with large-scale PKI is just that -- the large scale. How do we then issue digital credentials on a national scale if we want genuine proof of identity and if we want to add a biometric component? How do we provide customer service to 300 million users?

One solution would be to enlist the Postal Service. It has the brick-and-mortar presence around the U.S., it already facilitates such programs as draft registration and it's subject to oversight by the federal government.

If the idea of too much government involvement worries you, another option would be to employ trusted private-sector organizations, such as banks. Banks have a developed national network, they are trusted and they are regulated by the federal government. Banks could play an enormous role in issuing, servicing, revoking and validating a national ID card.

In addition to the physical challenges, there are also technical challenges, such as systems integration, performance and scalability issues. There are human interface issues to consider, as well. Are these challenges insurmountable? No. Technology components such as XML, high-availability networks and databases, and general controls can be applied to this problem. Admittedly, the technical problems can't be solved overnight, but over time, the work can be done. This nation has tackled other difficult challenges in the past, and we can tackle this one as well.

The bottom line

  • A national ID card program would be good for the IT industry. The program would generate a demand for IT products and services.
  • A national ID card program would be good for individuals. Positive identification and strong authentication -- while assisting law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- can actually make it easier for us to positively control access to our personal data. With a national ID card, we could be sure the information that businesses, such as credit agencies, gather about us is more accurate, and it would give us greater access to that information.
  • A national ID card program could help discourage practices such as racial profiling or discrimination, because police could look for specific individuals rather than classes of people.
  • And a national ID card would be good for national security. There are too many disparate databases today in the law enforcement and intelligence communities and on the state and local levels. This lack of an integrated database makes it virtually impossible for one law enforcement authority to detect and apprehend someone on another agency's watch list. This single fact was one of the most important failures in our system that allowed at least one of the Sept. 11 terrorists to evade Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) border controls, even though he was wanted in a Florida county. The FBI, INS and CIA also had some of these terrorists on their watch lists, but they couldn't correlate the data.

It's time we had this national conversation and it's time for a national ID card program.

Eddie Schwartz is a senior vice president and corporate evangelist at Waltham, Mass.-based Guardent Inc.

For more viewpoints, from Maryfran Johnson, editor in chief of Computerworld, and Stephen Hunt of Datastrip, visit our Security Community and online discussion forum.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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