Renewed clamor for a national identity card system has emerged in pockets of government and industry following September 11's terrorist attacks, but the idea also faces strong opposition from privacy advocates.
Among those favoring the concept, Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison beat the drum for national ID cards recently and is willing to bear the software costs for such a system, an Oracle spokeswoman confirmed Monday.
On Capitol Hill, powerful lawmaker Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) told news outlets that Americans might support such an idea in the wake of this month's events. Further, within the Bush administration, high-ranking officials including Transportation Secretary Norm Manetta have reportedly called for briefings on such a system.
Manetta is said to have requested the briefing in conjunction with efforts to install facial scanning equipment at airports, which could feasibly be linked to a national ID card system, sources said.
But the idea of a national ID system with centralized repositories and tracking capabilities has long stirred controversy.
"We do not want a police state where every person in America is treated as a terrorist, a drug trafficker, money launderer, or criminal," said Lori Cole, executive director of the Eagle Forum, the Washington-based pro-family grassroots organization started by Phyllis Schlafly.
For this reason, privacy advocates and groups on both sides of the political aisle are combing proposed antiterrorism and airport security bills on the lookout for provisions that would enact such a system.
"We don't want to see Congress pass something in a rush because everyone is fearful to get on an airplane right now," Cole said.
Still, smart card and security vendors are at the ready, and Cole offered reports of technology companies lately boasting "a tremendous number of calls" in favor of national ID cards. Some vendors have even cited a spike in stock prices related to public support for such a system, she said.
ActivCard Inc. in Fremont, California is just one vendor poised for a government move toward national ID cards.
"What we are talking about here in terms of value to the user is confidence. Security is part of it, as is ease of use, convenience, and mobility," said Tom Arthur, ActivCard executive vice president.
ActivCard, along with a slew of other vendors, was signed on by the Defense Department to deliver an ID card for military use. Arthur said the Defense Department's system could possibly serve as a model for a national system.
The massive military smart card system makes use of PKI (public key infrastructure) technology and ties together human resources, payroll, and other Defense Department databases with basic identifying information such as name, rank, and serial number, Arthur continued.
"[The Defense Department's] new identity badge is the one worn in the Pentagon. It is the badge you plug into the network and the one you show to the guys with guns at the door," Arthur said.
The Defense Department's ID cards are equipped with chips, magnetic strips, and barcodes and will be used for such things as deployment exercises as well as accessing Defense Department systems and secure facilities and for conducting e-commerce transactions, according to information posted on department's Web site (www.defenselink.mil)The Defense Department will spend about US$145 million on the program over five years. Each card cost the military about $6, according to information supplied by the department.
ActivCard's Arthur estimated that a national ID card would similarly run between $5 and $6 per card, but the cost could hit $10 to $12 per person when related systems costs are factored in.
Indeed, groups such as Eagle Forum decry the notion of a national ID card on cost grounds as well principles.
"It would require a national database of this information, not only on each and every citizen but also on every person coming into the country as well. I think that is far beyond what we can afford," said Eagle Forum's Cole.
Cole pointed to a stormy congressional debate in 1996 over the use of social security numbers on drivers license cards as proof that a national ID card system would face huge political hurdles.
Because of the contentious nature of the national ID system, Cole said she does not expect President Bush to take the more expeditious route of signing an executive order creating such a system.