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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2001 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

James K. Glassman

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Consumer Reports

A National I.D. Card? Yes; Run By Larry Ellison? No --
WHEN I first heard that Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corp., had proposed a national I.D. card to help fight terrorism, I thought it was a joke. Not the I.D. card idea. But that Ellison was proposing it.

Flash back to June 2000, when The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal revealed that Oracle had hired private detectives to spy on rival Microsoft in the most unsavory ways, including, the Associated Press noted, "a $1,200 offer to janitors to get a peak at the trash." Ellison was utterly unapologetic - in fact, flippant. He said he personally approved the operation and called it a "civic duty," adding, "Some of the things our investigator did may have been unsavory. Certainly from a personal hygiene point, they were. I mean, garbage…yuck." Is this a man to trust with the software for tens of millions of identification cards?

Even Dan Gillmor, tech columnist for The San Jose Mercury News and a strong critic of Microsoft, called Oracle's spying a "scandal." That's why it's so incredible that Attorney General John Ashcroft and officials of the FBI and CIA took valuable time to meet with Ellison to discuss the I.D. card proposal he laid out in an interview with a San Francisco radio station KPIX and later in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal.

"It just sort of crosses the line of good taste," said Richard M. Smith, chief technology officer of the Privacy Foundation.

Ellison proposes bringing information from "myriad government databases [such as Social Security and law-enforcement records] together in a single national file." And Oracle will provide the software for free "with no strings attached," he offered. Ellison, in his Journal article, contends that we do not need "one national I.D. card." But that's certainly what his proposal sounds like.

"A national database combined with biometrics, thumbprints, hand prints, iris scans, or other new technology could detect false identities," he wrote. "Gaining entry to an airport or other secure locations would require people to present a photo I.D., put their thumb on a fingerprint scanner and tell the guard their Social Security number. This information would be cross-checked with the database."

It's a shame that Ellison has become the leading spokesman for this idea because it is worth serious consideration. Even Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer and civil libertarian, is now advocating a national I.D. card. He says it should be optional. "Anyone who had the card could be allowed to pass through airports or building security more expeditiously, and anyone who opted out could be examined much more closely." Ellison also wants voluntary cards, with non-holders subjected to more rigorous searches. But that's a little disingenuous. In effect, everyone who did not want to be severely hassled would have to have a card - and, frankly, although a civil libertarian myself, I don't think that's such a terrible concept.

After all, you can't get on a plane today without a driver's license or a passport. A national high-tech I.D. card would perform the same function but with a great deal more accuracy and security. A recent Pew Center survey found that, by 70 percent to 26 percent, Americans backed a system to require "citizens to carry a national identity card at all times to show a police officer on request."

The Ellison proposal has won the approval of, among others, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said, "There has to be some I.D. We have had a major catastrophe. This is a very serious time. The country is at war. The purpose here is to protect ourselves."

Dershowitz contends that the cards might actually increase freedoms. "Four Arab-looking guys reading the Koran are much less suspicious if they have the cards and can just slash them through card readers," he said.

It is the lack of an I.D. card, however, that makes the United States almost unique among nations. "You do have a right to be left alone in the most literal sense," says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If you have an I.D. card," says former Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.), now a law professor at Stanford, "it is solely for the purpose of allowing the government to compel you to produce it. This would essentially give the government the power to demand that we show our papers. It is a very dangerous thing."

Dangerous? Yes, there are dangers to a mandatory national I.D. card, but there may be greater dangers without one. The fact is, to live in a society as vulnerable as ours, we may have to give up something - but I disagree that what's lost is freedom. Instead, it's privacy, and maybe not even that.

In an interview with, Ellison expressed this reality in his typical over-the-top fashion, showing once again why he is the wrong guy to be making the pitch. "This privacy you're concerned about is largely an illusion. All you have to give up is your illusions, not your privacy."

The truth is that an I.D. card may force you to give up some of your privacy - though probably no more than driver's licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards and even electronic toll-readers like EasyPass force you to give up now. But even if privacy is lost, the question is whether such an exchange is worth the benefits? More and more, I believe that it is.

JWR contributor James K. Glassman is the host of Tech Central Station. Comment by clicking here.


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