America's New War?
States Devising Plan for High-Tech National Identification Cards
By Robert O'Harrow
State motor vehicle authorities are working on a plan to create a national identification system for individuals that would link all driver databases and employ high-tech cards with a fingerprint, computer chip or other unique identifier.
The effort by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which would take several years to implement if approved by state and federal authorities, follows disclosures that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers used false identities or obtained driver's licenses fraudulently.
Association leaders assertedat a meeting last week that driver's licenses "have become the 'de facto' national identification card used by law enforcement, retailers, banks and other establishments requiring proof of identification."
The group pledged to work closely with the new Office of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and federal authorities. The motor vehicle officials have proposed standardizing the driver's license process and linking databases before, but on a voluntary basis.
The new proposal would seek to make such changes mandatory, an official said.
Under the proposal, every state would continue to issue driver IDs. But every license and non-driver identity card would contain the same basic information and a similar set of security features to prevent tampering and fraud, association officials said yesterday.
"There's no need to create a new national ID card," said Jason King, the group's spokesman. "Let's just make what we have better."
The idea of a national ID card arouses fierce opposition among civil libertarians, both conservative and liberal, who believe a card would be used by government authorities to track individuals without their permission.
But public sentiment shifted after the terror attacks. One survey found that 70 percent of those questioned favored requiring citizens to carry a national identification card of the sort used in other countries.
The supporters do not include President Bush, who, an aide said, is not seriously considering the creation of such a card. But some lawmakers, technology specialists and others have begun promoting the idea as a way to identify terrorists and cut down on identity crimes.
Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), head of the House subcommittee on immigration and claims, opposes a national ID. But since the attacks, he believes that "members of Congress just can't throw the idea out without giving it some consideration," a spokesman said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee's panel on technology, terrorism and government information, also has expressed interest in a national ID card.
Yesterday she announced the introduction of legislation that would require foreign nationals to use high-tech visa cards containing a fingerprint, retinal scan or other unique identifier. It also would create a centralized "lookout database" containing information about known terrorists and other U.S. visitors deemed threatening.
Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle Corp., the world's largest database software maker, said last month that he would donate software to make it possible for the government to create a national ID card system to improve airport security.
Civil liberties activists said such a system would be costly and difficult to implement and would greatly ease the tracking of innocent citizens by creating a single identifier.
"It will be easier for companies and governments to track people. The question is, do we want that?" asked Robert Gellman, an attorney and privacy specialist in the District. "Will it really help in the fight against terrorism?"
Security specialists warn that technical hurdles to creating such a system are enormous. Once created, such IDs likely would be widely used to collect information about individuals, they said, and the databases containing that information might become targets of hackers.
"There are lots of flaws in software. It may create a false sense of security," said David Banisar, a research fellow at the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project. "There are all sorts of practical questions at the get-go."
Officials with the motor vehicle administrators organization said they understand the concerns about civil liberties. But they said the recent attacks -- and loopholes in the security of state driver ID systems -- demonstrate the need for changes.
Four of the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon exploited a legal loophole to obtain Virginia driver's licenses, though they did not live in the state. Under Virginia law, drivers had only to present a notarized residency form, cosigned by a state resident, and a notarized identity form cosigned by a lawyer.
In an Oct. 1 letter, the association president, Linda R. Lewis, asked that the General Accounting Office consider a study of the benefits of using "national databases maintained by motor vehicle agencies in the fight against terrorists and the enhancement of homeland security."
Lewis said the current system for issuing and tracking driver's licenses needs to be improved. "We've got to do something. The system isn't working as well as it should," she said. "The times have shown national security has got to be paramount."