Sunday, November 11, 2001

To use ID cards or not to use ID cards? This is a current and contentiously debated national security question that leads to even more questions.

For one, are such cards viable in terms of both security and privacy protection as a national strategy? If so, do certain technologies better serve these purposes than others? What are the upsides and downsides of available and implementable card technologies?

These are issues that the new and vital Office of Homeland Security face. As Tom Ridge, its founding director, has clearly stated, “It should stand back and above to find a way to strengthen our national ability to find answers.” He is obviously working to do so against continually recurring developments and obstacles.

As a professional who has had wide experience in researching, developing, analyzing and evaluating card and security technologies (whether magnetic, optical, microchip or biometrics), I believe there are answers to the issues in question.

First of all, is a national ID security card essentially feasible technologically? The answer is a qualified yes, because the degrees of protection and practicality vary widely. For example, the ranges of choice are from minimal security levels of enhanced magnetic stripe cards to a considerably higher level of security and fraud protection in computer card microchip (smart card) and biometric technologies.

Fortunately, all of the established security technologies integrated into cards have undergone many technical tests, trials and/or implementations.

Thus, they can be evaluated accurately in terms of their applicabilities to the established objectives. Their pluses and minuses can be clearly defined. Also, their implementation issues and costs are determinable for comparative evaluations.

An essential element that is required for objective assessment of options is the availability and participation of independent third-party expertise not connected with vendors in the ID and security fields. These resources exist and can be enlisted.

What of the legitimate concerns regarding intrusion on personal security that are always raised by civil libertarians when such matters are discussed?

The degrees of sophistication of some of the technologies to be considered cards and biometrics (fingerprint, face/iris scan, and hand reading) can overcome most obstacles relating to fraudulent replication and use.

However, part of the protective value of such technologies is in their ability to read, store and/or transmit information about the user to local or central databases. Government agencies such as the FBI, National Security Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Central Intelligence Agency must coordinate information exchange and activities with each other. With such enhanced safeguards, their stored databases would be used to catch criminals and terrorists, not infringe upon law-abiding citizens and legal U.S. residents.

In fact, the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service, credit bureau and credit card databases already store personal information about most citizens and legal (and sometimes illegal) residents in the U.S. So stored personal data is not new. This fact is further demonstrated by the ongoing photographing or image storing by CCTV surveillance cameras at ATMs, banks, retailers and other installations. Personal privacy was invaded years ago by these technology means, but mostly for the good in catching criminals.

Nations that currently utilize various forms of national ID cards successfully include Italy, Germany, Denmark, France (which has super concerns regarding privacy and civil liberties) and Singapore. Cards are probably in the offing for Australia, the Philippines, China, the Netherlands and Great Britain, among other countries.

Even though traditionally there has been resistance to ID cards or other incursions into personal privacy in the U.S., this attitude has changed significantly since September 11. Studies both by the Pew Research Center and New York Times/CBS indicate approval of ID cards ranging from 56 to 70 percent. In addition, civil libertarian and lawyer Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School wrote recently, “A national ID card could actually enhance civil liberties by reducing the need for racial and ethnic stereotyping.” In addition, Stephanie Foster of People for the American Way has so far been very tempered in her comments regarding civil liberty infringements during this critical time. The recognition of national emergency has crossed virtually all American political lines.

ID cards will not directly be protective against anthrax or other pathogen-containing mail. However, they could be invaluable in protecting against the entry into this country and internal movements within it of security-risk aliens.

Cards could accurately screen travelers at airports and other venue security checkpoints (a method Great Britain in adopting). In fact, had they been in use earlier, they might have effectively deterred or prevented the disasters of September 11 and possibly also the mailing of illness and death in the U.S. Incidentally, a side effect of irradiating mail to kill anthrax is that it also ruins film and credit cards. So solutions are not simple.

Of course, this brief review does not answer all concerns and questions.

Certainly there are issues to be resolved and evaluations of preferred technology solutions to be determined. However, these matters would seem to be resolvable. I believe they can and should be acted upon without further delay.

The Office of Homeland Security and Mr. Ridge face enormous and currently unknown challenges. However, there are resources available to assist them in substantially assuaging the growing fears and concerns and increasing the security of Americans. Substantial protection from potential terrorists could be in the cards.

Arlen R. Lessin is the New York-based managing director of the Lessin Technology Group, a global card and biometric technology business consultant. He founded SmartCard International Inc., which held the French “computer in a card” license for North America. He also holds the title of First Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.

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