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Deciphering the security ID debate

Privacy Council CEO Larry Ponemon says the core issue for many Americans is less centered on the existence of a national identification program than on how their personal data would get used.

    National security is one of the most important concerns for many Americans. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many of us feel a little less secure in public places such as the airport, train station or shopping mall.

    The general view of some security experts is that our best defense against future terrorist activity is a strong offense. Several business and government leaders have suggested creating a national ID card system, which would provide a highly secured identification and authentication credential for all Americans--including legal aliens.

    While there are many reasons why a national identification and authentication program may be useful for anti-terrorism efforts in the United States and abroad, many people believe that such a mandatory program would diminish our right to privacy and, ultimately, our civil liberties as provided by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    In essence, the controversy can be reduced to the following arguments.

    Critics maintain that a national ID card system would give government more power over citizens. Proponents say new authentication measures are available that will improve public safety. Some measures could use biometric technologies that are less reliant on human intervention. For example, the proverbial "bad guy" would find it difficult to gain access to a public place, such as an airport or sports stadium, because it would be nearly impossible for that individual to falsify his or her credentials.

    Also, they argue that our system today already violates our privacy rights and civil liberties. For example, in order to board a flight at an airport, we are required to show our driver's license or passport.

    However, critics maintain that a national ID card system would give government more power over citizens. They warn that in the wrong hands, it would serve as a social control mechanism by allowing only certain people to gain access to public places.

    In addition, they question the feasibility of developing a bulletproof authentication system that is maintained, managed or controlled by government (without a large, cumbersome bureaucracy). Recent credentialing problems within the Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Social Security Administration show just how difficult it would be to develop a tightly controlled ID system.

    It is clear that both sides have valid arguments. It also is clear that the main point of contention for many Americans is not the existence of a national identification and authentication program, but how their personal information would be used in their daily lives as they pass through various checkpoints.

    Despite recent efforts to introduce various forms of ID cards, I doubt that many Americans will be supportive. To increase public acceptance of a national ID card and reduce potential negative consequences, I would suggest the following points for consideration:

    • Do not make the national ID mandatory (in other words, it would not be a criminal act if you failed to register for the program). Allow citizens to choose other forms of documentation to prove their identity.

    • Build tight controls over the collection, use, sharing and usage of personal information gathered at various checkpoints. Make sure that this information is only used for verification and security purposes.

    • Establish an independent verification process to make sure that those organizations authorized to use the national ID for security and surveillance are adhering to tight compliance standards over the collection, use, sharing and storage of personal information.

    • Establish strict enforcement (with criminal penalties) for organizations that misuse or abuse personal information gathered from the national ID program.

    • Build multiple authentication technologies (in partnership with leading technology companies) to establish near-perfect (bulletproof) programs that can be used by government and other public entities without a large and unwieldy social cost or infrastructure.

    Is a national ID card in our future? Despite recent efforts to introduce various forms of ID cards, I doubt that many Americans will be supportive. Rather, I believe that in the long term, Americans will be more willing to place their trust in the new biometric technologies, such as facial-recognition software, to make our public places secure.

    The Winter Olympics will showcase not only the finest athletes in the world but also the most advanced security money can buy. This global event will serve as a testing ground for the effectiveness of security measures such as high-tech visas and facial-recognition technology in deterring terrorist attacks. It will also reveal the degree of privacy we are willing to surrender in order to feel secure. These issues are at the core of the debate to decide whether or not we will support the adoption of a national ID card program.