, SecurityFocus 2001-11-16
Three former Republican legislators call for state-run biometric smart card systems linked on a nationwide network. Just don't call it a national I.D. cardA trio of distinguished former legislators told a Congressional committee Friday that the U.S. needs a standardized identification system to stop terrorist attacks.
"We really know what needs to be done," former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said. "I think it's important to move while the public cares and is paying attention."
But opponents on the panel questioned the usefulness of a national I.D. system, pointing out that nearly every terrorist involved in the September 11 atrocities used his real name when he was in the U.S.
"We believe a national I.D. in any form should be rejected," ACLU lobbyist Katie Corrigan said. "None of the proposed identification systems would effectively sort out the good from the bad."
Committee members seemed open to suggestions as to whether the U.S. needed an I.D. card at all.
But Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., said the nation needed tighter tracking and control of foreign visitors, who lack the constitutional protections of U.S. citizens. Foreign visitors, including legal immigrants, he said, should be tracked. Students in particular, he said, should be watched to determine what they are studying, and when.
Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, suggested tying bank accounts and drivers licenses to Visa expiration dates so that visitors overstaying their welcome would be hampered in their movements.
Though he noted the General Accounting Office had recently given the federal government a D-minus for it efforts to secure its information systems against attack from the outside, Gingrich said inadequate data sharing was also keeping law enforcement from doing its job.
Americans should carry state drivers licenses that contained routine data, plus a biometric identifier such as fingerprint, retina scan or iris scan, he said. Those data -- presumably far more tamper resistant than simple name and address -- could then be stored in uniform databases in every state in the U.S., and tied into a national network, so that law enforcement could verify identities at a moment's notice.
Such documents, Gingrich insisted, would not be national I.D. cards, which could raise civil liberties concerns.
The ACLU's Corrigan predicted that any plan, no matter how limited its initial purpose, would evolve into a universal identifier demanded almost everywhere. In short order, she said, businesses and governments would use the electronic tracing devices to log the activities of Americans everywhere they went.
"Problems with the I.D. system or card could take away an individual's ability to move freely from place to place or even make someone employable until the file got straightened out," said Corrigan.
New York State Senator Roy Goodman, whose district includes the destroyed World Trade Center, seemed to embrace precisely the sort of data gathering that disturbed the ACLU. Why not, he asked, add a person's medical history to the card so that if he were injured, paramedics could assist his injuries more precisely?
Goodman recently headed a state panel that called for a number of improvements in the nation's internal security measures, including a national identity document.
The day's session resembled a tour of failed data-sharing and data-protection initiatives of the last 20 years.
Former Senator Alan Simpson said he spent years jawboning the Immigration and Naturalization Service to improve its database management, but to no avail. Thus, he said, programs that would have tracked immigrants as they entered, stayed in and left the country never got off the ground. "I had oversight hearings with the INS for 18 years. They told me all these wonderful things and none of them ever got done."
The country should consider it a "shame," he said, that it took 62 days to place the names of two known perpetrators of the September 11 hijackings on the criminal "watch list." Had the CIA shared what it knew with the FBI immediately, he said, some of the deaths might have been avoided.
Ben Shneiderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, said he doubted a national I.D. would be practical, let alone effective.
Access to detailed information on 300 million subjects, he said, is "unprecedented."
Add to that mix the errors that always arise in compiling databases, and the problem becomes unmanageable, at least in the short time table under consideration, Shneiderman said. And even if the I.D. cards became a reality, he added, face-to-face checks would always be necessary given current technology.