America's New War?
Oracle boss urges national ID cards, offers free software
Broaching a controversial subject that has gained visibility since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison is calling for the United States to create a national identification card system -- and offering to donate the software to make it possible.
Under Ellison's proposal, millions of Americans would be fingerprinted and the information would be placed on a database used by airport security officials to verify identities of travelers at airplane gates.
``We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint digitized and embedded in the ID card,'' Ellison said in an interview Friday night on the evening news of KPIX-TV in San Francisco.
``We need a database behind that, so when you're walking into an airport and you say that you are Larry Ellison, you take that card and put it in a reader and you put your thumb down and that system confirms that this is Larry Ellison,'' he said.
Ellison's company, Oracle, based in Redwood Shores, is the world's leading maker of database software. Ellison, worth $15 billion, is among the world's richest people.
``We're quite willing to provide the software for this absolutely free,'' he said.
Calls for national ID cards traditionally have been met with fierce resistance from civil liberties groups, who say the cards would intrude on the privacy of Americans and allow the government to track people's movements.
But Ellison said in the electronic age, little privacy is left anyway.
``Well, this privacy you're concerned about is largely an illusion,'' he said. ``All you have to give up is your illusions, not any of your privacy. Right now, you can go onto the Internet and get a credit report about your neighbor and find out where your neighbor works, how much they earn and if they had a late mortgage payment and tons of other information.''
Attempts by the Mercury News to reach Ellison for further comment Saturday were unsuccessful. Many questions about the proposal remain unanswered, such as whether foreign nationals would be required to have a card to enter the country. The hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks are not believed to have been U.S. citizens.
In the TV interview with anchorman Hank Plante, Ellison said shoppers have to disclose more information at malls to buy a watch than they do to get on an airplane.
``Let me ask you. There are two different airlines. Airline A says before you board that airplane you prove you are who you say you are. Airline B, no problem. Anyone who wants the price of a ticket, they can go on that airline. Which airplane do you get on?''
Oracle has a longstanding relationship with the federal government. Indeed, the CIA was Ellison's first customer, and the company's name stems from a CIA-funded project launched in the mid-1970s that sought better ways of storing and retrieving digital data.
Civil libertarians said caution is needed.
``It strikes me as a form of overreaction to the events that we have experienced,'' said Robert Post, a constitutional law professor at the University of California-Berkeley. ``If we allow a terrorist attack to destroy forms of freedom that we have enjoyed, we will have given the victory to them. This kind of recommendation does just that.''
Post said while such a system may catch some criminals, it could be hacked or faked or evaded by capable terrorists. Nor is it clear that such a system would have foiled the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.
But polls last week show many Americans support a national ID card.
In a survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, seven of 10 Americans favored a requirement that citizens carry a national identity card at all times to show to a police officer upon request. The proposal had particularly strong support from women. There was less support for government monitoring of telephone calls, e-mails and credit card purchases.
The FBI already has an electronic fingerprint system for criminals.
In July 1999, the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System became operational. That system keeps an electronic database of 41 million fingerprints, with prints from all 10 fingers of people who have been convicted of crimes.
The system has reduced the FBI's criminal fingerprint processing time from 45 days to less than two hours.
Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman in Washington, said Saturday that he is unaware of the details of Ellison's proposal and declined comment.
Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that she would be interested in discussing the idea with Ellison.
``She does feel that we do need to make some important advances in terms of increasing our security,'' Gantman said. ``A lot of people have brought up ideas about how to create more security and she's interested in exploring them. She'd like to find out more.''
One group certain to fight the proposal is the American Civil Liberties Union.
A statement about ID cards posted on the ACLU's national Web site says: ``A national ID card would essentially serve as an internal passport. It would create an easy new tool for government surveillance and could be used to target critics of the government, as has happened periodically throughout our nation's history.''