Can a National ID Tell Us Who We Are?

Whether there is a need is also a question.

by / November 30, 1998
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," he noted. "That includes many institutions you might not think of at first."

These include supermarkets that fill prescriptions, to say nothing of employers, because they provide medical coverage. Then there are scores of federal and state agencies, including law enforcement. As a result of public outcry, Vice President Al Gore indicated that the administration would not pursue an identifier at this time. Bills have also been introduced in Congress to either repeal the provision or to make any final plan subject to congressional approval.

Whether a national identifier will speed the evolution of electronic commerce is another issue. Although a truly verifiable identifier would resolve identity issues in electronic transactions, those working with e-commerce do not believe its success requires a national identifier as much as it does a practical way to verify the identity of an individual or entity.

Dave Temoshok of the General Services Administration said the federal government is trying to stay away from an all-encompassing individual identifier, preferring to develop identity verification through such technologies as digital signatures and public key escrow that would allow confidence in transactions between agencies and private parties. He noted that issuing of a digital signature certification is the first step toward creating an electronic identity, but that agencies would then verify that signature through further documentation.

Voting in Mexico

However, a national form of identity whose authenticity is widely accepted and trusted can be a boon for commerce. In Mexico, a voter identification card has been designed and issued that includes photographic and biometric data on the holder. While the card is only required for purposes of identity when voting, it has been quickly accepted as the most trustworthy form of identification and is frequently used in commercial transactions as well. A member of the Mexican elections commission said that people in the country's remote areas have never had a reliable way of proving who they are and have embraced the advantages of such an identifier. But, he added, the only form of proof required to get one, since documentation is often unavailable in rural areas, is to provide election officials with personal data and to have several witnesses vouch for your veracity.

The lack of precise and verifiable information that needs to be presented in Mexico to obtain such an identifier is a good illustration of one of the underlying problems in creating an accepted measure of identity -- the data on which a card is based can easily be incorrect or fraudulent. As Thomas Vartanian, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has written extensively on Internet issues, noted, an electronic identity is no better than the identifying information on which it is based.

In an article he wrote for American Banker, Vartanian points out, "Authentication must be the starting point in any electronic network transaction. Lacking the customary modes of physical identification, the parties to a faceless transaction in cyberspace need proof from a third party that each party is who he or she purports to be." He suggested the possibility of a national identification verification standard that would include traditional means of identification -- driver's license, passport, Social Security number, employee identification -- that as a whole would represent as reliable a means of identification as can practically be achieved.

Those opposing a national ID number worry about the Big Brother aspects of such a system -- both government and business having rapid and ready access to an individual's personal data, much of which consumers might prefer to keep private or, at a minimum, less vulnerable to dissemination. But as the need to reliably identify individuals increases in the electronic environment, some measure of uniform identity seems inevitable.

As Missouri's Benzen pointed out, the amount of transactional data we create today already allows companies and governments to track our lives, and a unique identifier probably won't change that reality too much. However, a national ID runs counter to many Americans' views on freedom and democracy. The Transportation Department's proposed regulations for requiring a Social Security number on drivers' licenses met stiff resistance from a coalition of groups from the left and the right of the political spectrum. Such resistance does not bode well for easy acceptance of a national ID.
Harry Hammitt is editor/publisher of Access Reports, a newsletter published in Lynchburg, Va., covering open-government laws and information-policy issues.

December Table of Contents

Harry Hammitt Contributing Writer