U.S. debates merit of national ID cards

National identification cards that hook into one large government database would cause more harm than good, according to most of the panelists who testified at a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing earlier this month.

There were some variations to this belief among the nine witnesses testifying; most notable was an Oracle Corp. senior vice-president who extolled the benefits of different government agencies being able to access, though not necessarily share, information verified by national ID cards.

Oracle senior vice-president of technology Tim Hoechst offered a toned-down version of the proposal for a national ID card and database system that company chief Larry Ellison made shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he offered to donate licenses to Oracle databases to support the cause. Faced with criticism, Ellison has since backed off that stance.

Many of the witnesses said at Friday’s hearing that instituting a new identification system with one central database is not the answer. Instead, the U.S. government should improve the usefulness and security of existing forms of identification – namely Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses – to also serve the function of verifying that people are who they say they are.

Having one uniform ID card backed by a national database “is an insult to our system of government,” said former congressman Bill McCollum, referring to the civil liberties violations that such a system would create, or at least appear to create. “But we do need to make some of the identifiers we have today work.”

Specifically, Social Security cards and driver’s licenses need to be made tamper resistant and counterfeit proof, McCollum said, and need to be equipped with biometric technology that matches the card holder’s retina or fingerprint with images stored on a secure database. The government must also get stricter about local organizations that issue birth certificates.

While he’s against a national ID card plan, panel witness and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said he does favor a system for identifying non-U.S. citizens that issues biometrics-enabled cards and relies on a shared, central database. Such a system would allow government authorities to monitor who is coming into the country, but would also offer some protection to foreign visitors.

“People who come here for business or vacation want to be safe,” Gingrich said.

It’s the ability for government officials to understand the relationship of information about individuals that will help them spot potential threats to national security, said Hoechst in his written testimony.

“Real information isn’t about data, it’s about the relationships between data. Often, the most profound insights are derived only when facts from totally separate systems come together,” his testimony read.

Instead of stressing the need for a national ID card – a term that in the past few weeks has garnered negative connotations for the implications to civil liberties that such a concept carries – Hoechst talked about a “standard identifier,” which could be an existing piece of information, such as a Social Security number. Although he added that ID cards would still be necessary to verify a citizen’s identity.

Also backing off the concept of one central government database, Hoechst said such a concept would be difficult to implement.

“Even if we decided for some reason that this was a good idea, it simply isn’t going to happen,” he said. “Any technical challenges aside, the social complexities of getting organizations to share their data in this fashion are fundamentally insurmountable. There are also difficult privacy and security issues with commingling data of various sensitivities.”

Instead, he described a scenario where the many different government databases that exist today would be able to “ask each other questions when it is relevant.” The standard identifier would be used to establish these relationships, he said.