Congress mulls ID cards

In the war against terrorism, technology is one of the nation's greatest strengths, Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) has said. But as the nation arms, it is evident that some high-tech weapons are two-edged swords.

Perhaps none cuts both ways more deeply than a national identification card.

Those who favor national ID cards say they might have prevented some of the Sept. 11 terrorists from boarding the air.liners they hijacked. However, opponents insist they would do little to deter terrorists while making it possible for the government to monitor the movements and transactions of law-abiding citizens.

The idea of national ID cards was intriguing enough that Horn convened a hearing on the subject Nov. 16 before the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee, which he chairs. After Sept. 11, "we must be open to new ideas," he said.

But Horn quickly learned from three veteran lawmakers that the idea is neither new nor popular.

Plans for a national ID card have been "shot out of the saddle" repeatedly in the past, said former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). Opponents have evoked images of Nazi Germany and concentration camp tattoos, and plans for national ID cards invariably have died.

"There is no need for a national ID card," said former Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). But there is a need to make existing ID cards, especially Social Security cards and driver's licenses, more secure. "I doubt that there is any document in America more fraudulently produced than a Social Security card," McCollum said.

"I would not recommend a national ID card" because that raises civil liberties issues, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But something very much like a national ID card could be created using state-issued driver's licenses and linking together state identification databases, he said.

If all 50 states issued driver's licenses with biometric identification features and the states had interconnected databases, police in any state could conduct positive identification checks "within seconds," Gingrich told Horn's subcommittee.

During their congressional careers, Simpson and McCollum were authorities on immigration issues. Gingrich was considered one of the most technology-adept members of Congress.

Proponents argue that national ID cards sound far more ominous than they are. The government already has databases full of personal information, from Social Security data to passport records, tax returns and voter registrations.

And credit card companies, retailers and other businesses routinely collect and circulate even more personal data, including bank transactions, telephone calls, arrest warrants, driving records, retail purchases and flight reservations.

Because of information technology, "I believe there is no such thing as privacy anymore," Simpson said.

To opponents such as Katie Corrigan of the American Civil Liberties Union, however, national IDs represent invasive technology that would violate the privacy of all while having a questionable effect on terrorism.

Producing national ID cards could cost $4 billion or more, Corrigan told the subcommittee.

The terrorists who struck Sept. 11 "all had driver's licenses, credit cards and Internet accounts," said Rep. Janice Scha.kowsky (D-Ill.).

"From a practical standpoint, a national identity card system would not have prevented the tragic terrorist acts of Sept. 11," agreed Ben Shneiderman, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland. "The suspected hijackers made no effort to conceal their identities." Besides, positive identification does not equate to a lack of criminal intent, he said.

Moreover, creating a national ID system would require "a complex integration of social and technical systems," which would be vulnerable to error, breakdown and sabotage, according to Shneider.man.

While Congress ponders ID cards, White House officials say President Bush "is not even considering the idea."

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National ID Cards

Features would likely include:

* Photo.

* Thumbprint.

* Information printed on card and encoded in magnetic strip or embedded chip that can be scanned into databases.

* Retina or iris scan.

* Hologram, embedded fibers and other techniques to make the card counterfeit-resistant.

* Name, age, address, gender, birth date and place, ID number, card expiration date and other information may be printed on the card or contained in the magnetic strip or embedded chip. When swiped past scanners, that information would be transferred to databases maintained by state and federal agencies, airlines, stores, and other businesses and organizations. Databases could make it possible to monitor cardholders' activities, especially if the databases are linked together. But would the cards stop terrorism?

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