Commentary: Yes, They Certainly Will

By Paul Magnusson

Sorry, Lorraine, but the great debate over a national ID card has already been decided. We have 50 different varieties of driver's licenses. They're already required to cash checks, get a post office box, board an airplane, buy beer, register to vote, enroll in college, and even drive a car.

But our makeshift system isn't working very well. Most licenses are easily altered or counterfeited. They're dumb, too: Little or no information is encoded in bar codes, magnetic strips, or smart computer chips. They're a necessary nuisance, basically.

In the wake of September 11, people are being asked for a picture ID so often that the real question is no longer whether to have a national ID card. Rather, it's how to improve on our haphazard system without encountering huge expense or encouraging Big Brother to trample on the Bill of Rights.

RAISING QUESTIONS. The defense against terrorism provides a compelling argument for national ID cards that could be required for various transactions. At least two of the September 11 terrorists were on an Immigration & Naturalization Service watch list of suspects, and still they flew around the U.S., used credit cards, had bank accounts, cell phones, and frequent-flier memberships, and took flying lessons. National IDs might well have raised questions when the hijackers were buying airline tickets, since some had apparently overstayed their visas.

Ingenious new technologies could make ID cards more secure, useful, and palatable to civil libertarians. Smart chips similar to those embedded in subway fare cards can hold digital photographs, thumbprints, or even retinal scans for foolproof identification. That's useful for a leasing company being careful about renting its new crop duster. And while the company is running your card through its reader, it can check to see if your private pilot's license is up to date. You have thoughtfully included that information as an option in order to save time (table). In fact, much of the information on a national ID card could be voluntary.

Actually, a national ID card is where emerging smart-chip technology, consumer convenience, and the fight against terrorism can all come together. Having trouble remembering your blood type or medical-insurance provider? Put it on the card for hospital emergency-room personnel to download on a reader employing a special encryption program for sensitive medical information. You might also include drug allergies and data concerning your next of kin. All this is "technologically easy," insists Oracle Corp. CEO Lawrence J. Ellison.

PROTECTION. Why not have a voluntary ID card and keep the government out of it entirely? Because to be secure, the government needs to be involved, just as the Bureau of Engraving & Printing adds those special features to $50 bills to make them so hard to duplicate. Seven percent of Americans say their personal identification papers have been stolen at one time or another. But a national ID card, protected by a 1,024-bit key code, is impossible to break "without a supercomputer working away for a hundred years," says Avivah Litan, a consultant at GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn. "So a national ID card would actually enhance privacy by protecting against identity theft."

In Finland, for example, the government provides smart cards to authenticate the identity of someone transacting business over the Internet. The cost: just $37, including a reader that connects to a computer in your home or office. Finns can add medical information to the cards, as well as use them to access their company's Intranet or to do their banking on the Internet.

The government also should be allowed to demand some data be included on the card. National IDs could be used to screen out felons attempting to purchase guns if criminal records were added. And smart ID cards could be required of all immigrants admitted temporarily on student, business, or tourist visas.

All this security can be had for a surprisingly small investment. GartnerGroup puts the cost per card at about $8, while a commercial reader might run around $50--well worth the cost to a business the first time it detects check or identity fraud.

The trick now is to fashion a national ID system that serves security while maintaining Americans' civil liberties. Thanks to technology, that's easier than ever.

Magnusson covers international economics from Washington.

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