Commentary: National IDs Won't Work

By Lorraine Woellert

With the public still shaken by the World Trade Center attack and spooked by a growing number of anthrax scares, the clamor for tighter security is growing. Suitcase searches, closed streets, and a cop on every corner just aren't enough to settle jittery psyches. So we keep looking for ways to reassure ourselves and to soothe complicated new fears.

One idea--a national identification card that presumably would separate law-abiding citizens from dangerous infiltrators--is being promoted as a tool to reduce the threat of terrorism. But it's no silver bullet. A national ID card would rip at the fabric of our constitutional freedoms. It would cost billions and be technologically imperfect. Most troubling, it would lull the populace into a false sense of security.

First off, what would you need to get an ID card? A birth certificate and driver's license? Anyone--including terrorists--can obtain or alter such documents. Several of the men suspected of the September 11 attacks had forged identities. What would have prevented them from obtaining ID cards? And what of domestic terrorists Theodore Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh?

To guard against counterfeiting, the card would need to be encoded with biometric data such as a fingerprint, retinal scan, or blood sample--yet these come with high failure rates. "Biometrics are fallible," says Professor David J. Farber, a technology expert at the University of Pennsylvania. He says fingerprints are reasonably good if you have an expensive reader. But hand readers fail frequently, facial recognition is new and buggy, and retinal scans are costly. "If this is a first-line defense, you can afford a lot of errors, but only if they're errors that reject. If they're errors that accept, [the cards are] useless," he says. In any case, these systems count on a nonforgeable ID card, and the technology involved for that can be prohibitively expensive, adds Farber.

Even simple data-storage cards, at $10 to $35, don't come cheap. Multiply that by 280 million Americans. Add the cost of card readers. Pay staff and overhead. The bottom line: a multibillion-dollar system that will take years to deploy and a well-funded bureaucracy to operate.

Then there's the Big Brother problem. A national ID card would eventually become as ubiquitous as the Social Security number and could be required for everyday life in the new age of terror. Want to enter the Lincoln Tunnel to New York? Send a package? Register for school? Buy a computer? No can do without an ID card. "This will quickly become a mandatory system," says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

CHECKS. Taken to the extreme, a smart card could record your ethnicity, religion, political leanings, or favorite cereal. And at every turn, government agencies, employers, banks, insurance and health-care companies, and grocery stores would pressure you to add data to your life-on-a-chip. A prospective employer using the card to check your citizenship might notice that you vote in Democratic primaries--since the ID is required when you go to the polls. Hmm, maybe you aren't a good fit for this company. What about that prescription you're taking to control schizophrenia--part of the medical record that your health-care provider insists must be on your card? Airport security might decide you're unfit to fly. "We need to very carefully think through what our objective is," says William P. Crowell, former director of the National Security Agency and head of Cylink Corp., a Santa Clara (Calif.) technology company. "Let's make sure...use of the card is limited to [that] purpose before moving ahead."

Therein lies the irony: The more robust the card is, the more faith the public will put in it. That, in turn, increases its vulnerability. "The more people assume the card is good, the less they will check you out, and the easier it becomes to slip someone past the system," says Professor Jonathan S. Shapiro of Johns Hopkins University. In other words, that false sense of security might only leave us more vulnerable to further terrorist attacks.

Woellert covers politics from Washington.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.