Electronic Design

National ID Card: The Ultimate Security Measure

A year has now passed since the tragedy that took place at the World Trade Center and other locations on the east coast. The events on September 11, 2001 did a lot more than end thousands of lives and make an impact on countless millions of others. They shook the country out of its complacency and confidence that terrorists couldn't do major damage within our borders. But now that a year has gone by in which the justice system has slowly turned its great wheels to make those who masterminded and participated in the events pay for their acts of terror, we must look forward. We must determine how to prevent another terrorist act.

Many new security measures are in place, especially at airports and other major public facilities. However, the electronics industry has fallen behind, with demand for the security scanners and X-ray systems outstripping the supply. This will change as production ramps up. But many airports may not be able to meet government mandates to have the systems in place by year's end.

These systems also are very expensive, making it even harder to justify their purchase, especially because travel is down and several airlines are on the brink of bankruptcy. So lower-cost solutions are needed to meet the requirements of the travel industry and allow screening systems to be placed in venues such as sports arenas, government buildings, and schools.

At this point we should ask ourselves if we're becoming too paranoid and going overboard in the amount of screening that we're doing. Perhaps we are, but it will take time to find the right balance of quick once-overs versus full screening. Part of the paranoia comes from the libertarians who feel total anonymity is an essential part of the freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution. They shy away from any standardized approach like a national ID card that can be used to identify individuals. Their stated concern is that the government could use the information on the card or in the main database to track, trap, or otherwise limit the freedom of individuals.

My view is more benign. I think some type of uniform ID card would be appropriate provided that certain restrictions on use and access are in place. Most of us already carry several identification cards, including a driver's license and a Social Security card, so why not something that's a little more robust?

Such a card could contain some biometric information—a fingerprint, picture, or voiceprint—perhaps some user passwords, and possibly even some emergency medical information about allergies or other special conditions. The card could also double as a passport, driver's license, Social Security card, credit card or debit card, and much more.

I also see a national ID card as an additional deterrent to yet another escalating problem plaguing our country—identity theft. A card that really proves you are you would simplify transactions and prevent future applications from being hindered by suspicion. It could also streamline the current procedures and reduce the backups at entry points. No longer will double or triple proofs of identity be requested for simple things like check cashing or serious tasks such as global travel.

Of course, the success of this entire scenario will depend heavily on cryptography and the ability to keep the data secure to prevent copying and alterations. Will current encryption schemes be up to the task, or will new algorithms and schemes be needed? I think the latter. Already hackers have found ways to "break" some of the algorithms that use 32- and even 48-bit encryption keys. Before long, due to increases in CPU performance, large keys (64- and 128-bit) will be cracked as well.

Only when the data on the ID card is secure and can't be duplicated will people feel assured that the data won't be misused. This will go a long way toward the goal of creating a nationwide ID card to provide secure storage for personal information and allay fears that Big Brother is always watching.

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