Would a national ID card work?

Inside the Internet.
Nov. 8 2001 3:30 PM

The National ID Card

If they build it, will it work?

(Continued from Page 1)

While the underlying technology of a national ID card system is largely proved, I have grave doubts about whether or not it would deliver as promised. Consider:

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Digital IDs can't be faked, but identity can. The data in a digital ID can only be as good as its source. The people entering the data into the cards can be deceived by forged birth certificates or they can be bribed to issue fake IDs. The problem is compounded when you produce ID cards for visitors arriving from countries where visas, passports, and driver's licenses are easily forged.

Technology is wonderful. Technology implementations are not. If every thumbprint reader at the U.S.-Canadian border goes on the fritz, do you stop traffic until new units are flown in? No, you revert to the time-consuming, error-prone manual checks that we know and now fear, and then the bad guys slip in. I'd be reluctant to switch to a national ID card system before I was convinced that it was 99.999 percent reliable, like the telephone system. And I think we're a long way from there.

You can have it good, cheap, or fast—choose two. Large systems take time to design and implement well. Building an effective ID system quickly would require the information technology equivalent of the Manhattan Project, and even then I'd worry that civil liberty concerns were being overlooked.

So, Larry, I applaud your effort to improve national security by replacing our current slapdash system. And I'll even give you the benefit of the doubt that you aren't pitching the idea to line the pockets of the Oracle database experts who'd maintain the system. But I fear that the time for a national ID card system has not yet come. It would be grossly expensive to build and maintain, and I have no confidence that it would work as promised. Worst of all, I worry that its fancy technology would give us a false sense of security and breed dangerous overconfidence in the security personnel who should be most vigilant. It will take something more than technology to make me feel safe again.

Bill Barnes, Slate's founding program manager, draws and co-writes the daily comic strip Overdue.

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