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Big Brother, Where Art Thou?

Security executive Jim Miller argues that a national ID card would help the United States combat terrorism, end wasteful government redundancies, and streamline helter-skelter state and national agencies. So where are our personal bar codes and biometric identifiers? Will the United States institute national IDs?

Futurist: Jim Miller
Affiliation: President, chairman, and CEO of ImageWare Systems Inc., a software company specializing in digital-photography applications for law-enforcement agencies and corporate clients.
Base: San Diego

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Scenario

In the days and weeks following September 11, immigration officials and federal investigators made startling discoveries about how the 19 suicide bombers faked, forged, and fabricated their way into U.S. flight schools, airports, and jetliners. It seems the terrorists crept into this country the same way countless underage coeds steal their way into nightclubs and bars every weekend: using fake IDs purchased on the black market.

Officials believe that several September 11 hijackers obtained phony state-issued identification cards in Virginia, where, until September 20, the Department of Motor Vehicles required ID applicants to submit only state-residency certificates cosigned by a valid resident. No proof of identity or residency was necessary to obtain a state ID. World Trade Center bombers Abdulaziz Alomari and Ahmed Alghamdi, among others, reportedly purchased falsified Virginia residency forms and used them to build a library of false identification.

“That initial fake ID is called a ‘breeder document,’ because once you have that, you can breed unlimited false documents using it as proof,” says Jim Miller, president, chairman, and CEO of ImageWare Systems Inc., a company that uses digital-imaging technology to help police departments track criminals. “You’ve got to make sure that that first ID is genuine because it’s just one small step away from false passports, visas, and Social Security numbers.”

So What?

To prevent criminals from obtaining false identification in the first place, many politicians and business leaders are advocating the institution of a national ID card — a one-stop, totally uniform system for registering and tracking Americans and authorized visitors. The national ID system, reintroduced into debate last fall, would provide increased security for U.S. citizens by arming their driver’s licenses (or other government-issued ID) with smart-card technology similar to that found on the American Express Blue credit card.

“A smart chip embedded in the ID would be able to identify a fingerprint and store a PIN number or password that only the owner could activate,” says Miller, who has steered ImageWare to offer full-service security solutions, including a national ID card for Uganda, a passport system for Peru, and driver’s licenses for Nigeria and Indonesia, among other countries. “Airline personnel, for example, wouldn’t just glimpse at the ID; they would scan its bar code and follow up with questions if anything appeared suspicious. The card would be rendered inoperable if stolen or tampered with. It would be extremely difficult to fake.”

The proposed ID card would also save Americans time and money, Miller says. According to industry reports, somewhere between $1 billion and $250 billion is lost due to ID theft every year. In 2001, identity theft became the top consumer fraud complaint reported to the government. And experts estimate that 750,000 citizens will have their identities stolen in 2002 alone. Reducing those losses could save private and public institutions untold grief and money, Miller says.

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He adds that the technology used to power a national ID system — including a database containing information about every citizen — could also help streamline and accelerate the criminal-justice system. Currently, ImageWare is demonstrating that benefit at the state level. The software company creates digital-imaging software that allows far-flung police departments to keep tabs on known suspects and repeat offenders and to share information about intercounty or interstate criminal cases in real time.

Before instituting the ImageWare system in the mid-1990s, the New York City Police Department said it took roughly 38 hours to process one arrest. Today, it takes about 4.

“Previously, everyone was booked downtown because that’s where the big mainframe existed, with all the criminal records for the surrounding boroughs,” Miller says. “The booking system was based on names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers, all of which can be faked. And the only photographic records lived in huge, bulky books of Polaroids that were difficult to transport and organize.”

ImageWare’s system allows police departments in Harlem and Queens to share criminal records, including digital photographs, with the click of a mouse. Miller believes that level of interconnected cooperation and security can be achieved on a national level with the help of a uniform ID system. No longer would criminals be able to dupe authorities by crossing a state or county line, Miller says.

“These database-sharing tools will prove critical in the post-September 11 world, where national law enforcement must execute its own mission to defend the United States,” he says. “Connectivity between local, state, and federal officials is an absolute must-have today.”

The Debate

Many opponents to the national ID system argue that it threatens Americans’ civil liberties. By creating a national database of Social Security numbers, tax documents, and criminal records, they argue, Americans would be exposing themselves to exploitation and discrimination at the hands of the government and law enforcement. A Big Brother database would endanger citizens’ privacy too much to prove worthwhile.

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Miller agrees that a national ID database would consolidate mass amounts of personal information, but he argues that George Orwell’s worst nightmare is already thriving in the United States. “The government knows an awful lot about you and me anyway,” he says. “This card isn’t going to create any files on you that don’t already exist. If the government wants to tap information about you, it’s going to tap that with or without a national ID card. What we’re talking about is the difference between lots of little brothers and one Big Brother.”

What the Future Holds

Earlier this year, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators issued a proposal to upgrade state-issued driver’s licenses into regulated national ID cards. The plan, which would standardize the very haphazard process of obtaining an ID card, has gained wide approval with politicians and citizens alike. But still, many Americans question whether a national ID card would do more harm than good to the average citizen carrying it in his back pocket.

Miller suggests that both sides begin asking a different question — not about the card and its technology but about the people trusted to administer it. “At the end of the day, Americans must do what they’ve always done: trust good people to protect the integrity of our democratic system,” he says. “The success of a national ID card will not hinge on the technology employed; it will hinge on the honor of the people we elect to safeguard our Constitution.”

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about ImageWare Systems Inc. on the Web.