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