The idea of using some consistent form of personal identification has often been touted as the answer to establishing that someone actually is who they claim to be. With the continued development of electronic commerce and services, the ability to verify the identity of consumers and clients becomes ever more important. Technology is certainly helping to drive the debate, but perhaps equally important is the increasing concern over identity theft and the ease with which individuals' identities may be stolen or "borrowed," or entirely new identities may be manufactured.

Currently, two proposals relating to creation of national IDs are wending their way through the federal government. Both are based on provisions in laws that, broadly speaking, have nothing to do with identification. As immigration and health-care reforms worked their ways through Congress several years ago, provisions relating to identity were attached with the hope that methods of consistent and reliable identification would help achieve the underlying goals of the legislation.

Social Security Numbers

In its last overhaul of immigration laws, Congress tucked in a provision requiring the Department of Transportation to facilitate the use of Social Security numbers on all state drivers' licenses, to make them acceptable for identification purposes by federal agencies. The provision was meant to stop illegal immigrants from using fake drivers' licenses to obtain federal benefits.

Proposed implementing regulations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration appeared this summer and were greeted by public outcry, including thousands of public comments; typical federal regulations provoke only a handful of comments from the most affected parties. The proposed regulations were also the subject of congressional hearings.

Critics fear that the widespread use of Social Security numbers on drivers' licenses would create a de facto national identification card that can easily be linked to a myriad of personal information. Ironically, before the federal proposal appeared, some states began to move away from the use

of Social Security numbers on drivers' licenses. In Virginia, drivers may use a Social Security number on their license, but they may also choose to have a randomly

generated number serve as their drivers' license ID.

While Congress attempted to prevent the Social Security number from becoming a national identifier by restricting its use by federal and state governments as part of the Privacy Act of 1974, the numbers have commonly been used as one of the most reliable indicators of identity in all sorts of commercial transactions.

Mike Benzen, chief information officer for the state of Missouri, noted that Social Security numbers could not realistically form the basis for a national identification system because they are not reliable. He said there are many people with multiple Social Security numbers -- the Social Security Administration apparently has no practical way to screen an application to ensure the individual has only one number.

National Health Identifier

The other bureaucratic track that has received more publicity is the issue of a national health identifier. Again, as part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, Congress required the Department of Health and Human Services to come up with a way to consistently identify health-care records so that health-care information could be transferred to insurers and medical personnel quickly and efficiently.

While the ability to link individual medical records and access them quickly could make diagnosis and treatment far more efficient and accurate, the identifier was seen by many as a major step toward creating a national identification system. Bob Gellman, a Washington privacy consultant who has worked on medical privacy for a number of years, noted that the information would be available to a wide segment of the economy. He pointed out that the health-care establishment -- providers, payers and insurers -- would have access.

"Health care represents one-seventh of the overall economy,"

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer