TOPICS > Politics

National ID

February 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: The attacks of Sept. 11 have led to major national concern over how easy it is to obtain false personal identification and use it at airports and other locations.

The nineteen terrorists had no trouble getting ID’s. Five had Social Security numbers obtained with false identities; seven had Florida driver’s licenses; several had ID’s from states where they didn’t live.

Those facts have ignited a new debate on the need for a national ID card, and that has raised the question of whether any card– a driver’s license, a Social Security card or something new– can be made foolproof and secure.

Polls show more than half of Americans favor a national ID card to help catch criminals and terrorists.

Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, is among those advocating a card that would replace the current fragmented identification systems.

SCOTT McNEALY, CEO, Sun Microsystems: Do you want to let people on an airplane, or rent a crop duster, or if you’ve got your own building, do you want to really let anybody in without knowing exactly who they are and being able to check them against folks you don’t want in there?

SPENCER MICHELS: A national ID card, McNealy says, would be inexpensive to issue, and would check the cardholder’s physical characteristics, like fingerprint or eye pattern; so- called biometric data.

SCOTT McNEALY: This is not a database. This is of who you are and your children and where you live and all the rest of it.

It could have your biometric information in it, it could have passwords, it could have other identification information here to help prove that whoever has this card really is who it says.

And then this chip runs applications that can talk to a database to verify that you really are who you are.

SPENCER MICHELS: Larry Ellison, CEO and founder of Oracle Corporation, also is pushing for some form of national identification.

His Silicon Valley company would provide free software to compile and coordinate a nationwide database of personal information. Ellison says Americans already have provided industry with much of that data.

LARRY ELLISON, CEO, Oracle Corp.: And can you imagine a database that keeps track of where you live, and how much you earn and where your kids go to school; what kind of car you drive; what your bank balance is; when you were divorced, what your alimony payments.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that? Well, it already exists.

SPENCER MICHELS: Much of that information, he says, is being collected currently by credit bureaus, marketing companies, county recorders and health insurers, and is often available on the Internet.

Ellison would centralize that information and link it to identification cards like driver’s or pilot’s licenses, which would have new security features.

LARRY ELLISON: What we need to do is take our existing ID cards and make them much more difficult to duplicate.

We need to have a national standard technology for our existing ID cards. We don’t need a new ID card.

SPENCER MICHELS: State and national lawmakers are considering various bills concerning ID cards, although the president has said he does not think a national ID is necessary. Americans traditionally have been wary of excessive scrutiny by government.

The idea of a national ID card often raises the specter of totalitarian regimes. But at military bases around the world, cards that can access a database, or that contain large amounts of information on their face or back, are already in limited use.

The Department of Defense has begun issuing the first of four million so-called “smart cards,” which could serve as models for a national ID.

Using a chip, barcodes and a magnetic strip, the cards can store or access medical records, financial information, encryption for e-mail, military orders, and a host of identification indicators. The cards will allow the user access to buildings, mess halls, weapons facilities, and so on.

Those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day to work in the United States use a special ID, and the well-known Green Card allows permanent resident aliens to work and live in the United States.

Ten million Green Cards have been made for the Immigration and Naturalization Service by Lasercard, part of Drexler Technology.

They use an optical stripe, which works like a piece of film or a CD, across the back where information is stored. It can be read with a special reader.

Stephen Price-Francis of Lasercard says it is hard for an imposter to use the card.

STEPHEN PRICE-FRANCIS, Lasercard Systems: To give you an example of how this might be used, if we insert the card into the reader, the first thing it does is read my name from the card and asks me to identify myself with my fingerprint.

It authenticates and reads from the card my facial image, my fingerprint image, and demographic information about me: Name, date of birth, card number and so on.

SPENCER MICHELS: Take it out and let me see if it…


SPENCER MICHELS: …If I can fool it. ( Laughs ) all right, so put it in now.

STEPHEN PRICE-FRANCIS: All right. Here you go.

SPENCER MICHELS: Okay, now it…

STEPHEN PRICE-FRANCIS: Why don’t you use your fingerprint?

SPENCER MICHELS: Right, but first we got to get your name off…


SPENCER MICHELS:…Because it says Steve.

STEPHEN PRICE-FRANCIS: Please put your finger…

SPENCER MICHELS: And now I’m going to put my finger on there.

STEPHEN PRICE-FRANCIS: Yep. Okay, and as you saw, it said, “identity denied”; in this case, entry refused because we’re simulating border entry.

This is the image of my fingerprint from my card. This is the image of your fingerprint. And we’re not forensics experts, but we can see this is not the same fingerprint.

SPENCER MICHELS: Forging the permanent resident card is made very difficult by micro-images and holograms of the presidents, states and flags contained in tiny dots.

FRED DAVIS, Lumeria: Okay, well, this is a… a sort of edge of the Web server installation that…

SPENCER MICHELS: But some technology experts, like Fred Davis of the Internet security firm Lumeria, say that no card is completely secure.

He says forgers could buy the laser technology to make their own optical cards. And, he says, relying on data stored on a single database, as proposed by Oracle’s Ellison, is even less secure.

FRED DAVIS: If we aggregate too much information in a central location, hackers and criminals and so forth can get at this information. They can use it to steal your identity, to impersonate you, to blackmail you.

LARRY ELLISON: Do you know how many people have hacked into an Oracle database in the last ten years?


LARRY ELLISON: That would be zero. That would be zero. It is not true that anyone can hack into any piece of software.

SPENCER MICHELS: The technological debate aside, some critics like attorney Deirdre Mulligan of the University of California, fear national ID cards will invite abuse by the government.

DEIRDRE MULLIGAN, University of California Law School: There are enormous instances where our government has engaged in rather unchecked collections and uses of personal information about individuals in ways that in retrospect we’ve looked at and really found abhorrent.

This is really a question about whether or not we want to live in a society that collects data on everybody; not on people who have raised our suspicion, not on people who have done something to implicate themselves, but on every single one of us.

I think there’s no doubt it would be misused.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sun’s Scott McNealy thinks misuse is less likely if many existing databases are used, rather than a central database as Ellison proposes.

And McNealy wants that information, other than simple identification, accessed only by court order.

SCOTT McNEALY: The airline’s going to keep your travel database, the banks are going to keep your financial databases, your doctor’s going to keep your health care database, and all of this stuff is only going to get pulled together for government scrutiny if they can go to the courts and get an absolute, you know, “this person’s a potential crook who’s a threat to society and we want to build a database.”

That’s the only time you’re going to get a database.

SPENCER MICHELS: State motor vehicle directors say they may have the simplest, most politically acceptable solution.

They want to make the driver’s license uniform throughout the country, and more difficult to forge.

Currently this de facto national ID card, or forgeries of it, can be obtained easily.

LINDA LEWIS, AAMVA, chief executive officer and president: It took less than two weeks– less than two weeks– for the media to link the ability of a terrorist to penetrate American society and gain entry onto planes with the state-issued driver’s license.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even if the driver’s license is authentic, highway patrol officers on the lookout for speeders have limited means to check those licenses, especially those from out of state, for records other than speeding.

OFFICER CHUCK MONROE, California Highway Patrol: The reason I stopped you is because it’s a 55-mile-an-hour zone. I got you at 68 on the radar coming the other way.

Do you have a driver’s license I can take a look at?

SPENCER MICHELS: Officer Chuck Monroe uses the license to identify the driver and to check her driving record.

OFFICER CHUCK MONROE: Show any priors for speed?

SPOKESMAN: Negative.

SPENCER MICHELS: Her driving record is clean.

Now what if you want to know if this person has a criminal record, or, you know, even maybe is wanted as a terrorist or something?

OFFICER CHUCK MONROE: Well, in general, that wouldn’t come up on the driver’s license system.

We have several different systems in the state and across the country. We’d have to run an additional check in a different system.

Everything else seems to be in order with your driver’s license, registration and insurance, so just a warning today. Okay?

SPENCER MICHELS: Law enforcement officials believe a more secure, and uniform driver’s license would be more effective in catching criminals.

But since it is used frequently as an ID, it will work only if the data on it is checked carefully, not just glanced at, according to California’s DMV Director, Steve Gourley.

STEVE GOURLEY, California DMV Director: People have to look at it and they have to run that card just like they do a credit card and say, “yes, this is Steve Gourley,” or, “no, it’s not Steve Gourley.” Or, “yes, there’s… this magnetic stripe is real,” or it’s not.

And until we get to the point that people are willing to check all the bells and whistles we put on the driver’s license, what’s the sense in putting the bells and whistles on?

SPENCER MICHELS: While the question of a new national ID card remains contentious, DMV directors say that a more secure and uniform driver’s license appears for the first time to be a distinct possibility, and that could fill the role of a national ID card.