E-Business Commentary -- Another National I.D.?

Dec. 21, 2004
We must decide how much security, and at what cost.

America's Lord of the Files, Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison, says his firm has given the government software to develop a highly secure national identification database, although he believes it should be voluntary for everyone except non-U.S. citizens. In other words, Uncle Sam wouldn't wrench your arm to go down and get your photo taken at your local Department of People Identification (DOPI). Voluntary or not, opponents say such a national database containing information about every one of us is a big step toward the kind of central government control a la Big Brother that George Orwell wrote about in his classic book, "1984." Well, hey, 1984 came and went, and we're still here, freedoms and all. Unfortunately, Sept. 11 came and went, and we're beset with deep worries, and a gnawing sense that our security systems continue to come up wanting. How much freedom should we forsake in the name of security? My sense is, whatever it takes, within reason. We operate as a free society, not a police state. It's unfortunate that we need soldiers with automatic weapons at airports, bridges and tunnels. One more information system, though, even if it is national, isn't going to put us in chains, literally or figuratively. In fact, we already live with a fair number of national information systems in place. And, no doubt there are those who deplore their existence and occasional abuse. Credit reporting, driving records and criminal records are all, to some extent, available via one national database or another. Credit reports are available nationwide through credit reporting agencies, and are generally accessed upon application for a loan. Few people are aware that their driving records, while generally kept at the state level, also are maintained at the federal level if they have had their licenses suspended or revoked, or if they have been involved in several serious accidents. Most states routinely check new applicants for driver's licenses to see if they have a record with the federal National Driver Register (NDR), maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The records of more than 36 million motorists -- about one out of five U.S. drivers -- are kept in this computerized federal database, which shares its data with the states, and vice versa. The idea is not so much to infringe upon the individual's right to privacy as it is to protect the public from repeat offenders on the road. Routine speeders and parking-ticket scofflaws need not apply, mind you. To qualify, you need to have your license suspended or revoked and have repeat serious infractions behind the wheel. Unfortunately, many of the worst offenders continue to drive by simply applying for licenses in other states. The NDR database helps, but not all states are religious about timely reporting of data and checking of previous driving records before issuing licenses. Pardon me, but in my book, allowing these repeat driving violators to circumvent the rules of a free society is hardly a freedom that needs to be protected. A national driver's license, although unlikely to happen anytime soon, would stop these cheaters cold. A national identification database using a biometrically encoded I.D. card would allow for instantaneous positive identification. Sure, it sounds a lot like Big Brother, but it would help identify those who would attack our society. Authorities with access to the database would know you. The cop who stopped me for exceeding the speed limit on U.S. 101 in Oregon last November would have immediately known if I had a serious criminal record. Likewise for the airline agent who checked me in at the United terminal at SFO. Hey, you don't want these people to know who you are, then maybe this system is not for you. Nor is it for those with something to hide. I imagine they'd be very worried. I can go for it, so long as there are safeguards against its abuse. I know, I know. Social Security records have been abused. Same with IRS. These kinds of abuses, no doubt, will continue to occur from time to time. The key to defending our freedoms is ensuring that they not become part of some larger, secret pattern. Any technology can be abused. The question we must answer, as a free people, is whether its use is worth the risk. Doug Bartholomew is an IW senior technology editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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