The Mercury News
Posted at 10:53 p.m. PDT Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001
ID card idea attracts high-level support
Top executives, lawmakers back national identification card proposal
BY ELISE ACKERMAN
Silicon Valley software mogul Larry Ellison's proposal to create a national ID card has gained substantial ground -- and the interest of top Bush administration officials -- in a signal that the controversial idea may be closer to reality than ever.
In an interview with the Mercury News on Tuesday night, Ellison, the chairman and CEO of Oracle, said he met with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and officials at the CIA and FBI in Washington, D.C., over the past week to discuss the idea. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has endorsed it, other tech executives have jumped on board and even some prominent civil libertarians have said the idea is worth pursuing.
``We are in the process of putting a proposal together and analyzing what it would take to get to get something running in a matter of a small number of months, like three months, 90 days,'' Ellison said. ``We think we could put up this technology very, very quickly.''
The idea of a national ID card has been debated since the 1930s. But Ellison's proposal in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has reignited the dispute over privacy and security.
Under Ellison's plan, the government would create a national identification card. The card would contain basic information about the holder, including Social Security number, and would be linked to a federal database containing detailed personal data, including digital records of the person's thumbprint, palm print, face or eyes.
Passengers would show the card at airports, Ellison said, and would have their thumbs scanned by a digital reader to verify identity before boarding a plane.
The cards also would be instantly checked against a new national database. That database would base would link existing criminal and immigration data to screen out potential terrorists.
Ellison unveiled the idea three weeks ago in an interview with a Bay Area TV station. In it, he offered to donate the software. His company, Oracle, based in Redwood City, is the world's leading maker of database software. He is among the world's richest men, with a fortune estimated at $15 billion.
Since then, Ellison has offered more details.
The cards would be voluntary for all U.S. citizens, he said Tuesday. Any American without a card still could board a plane, but only after undergoing a more rigorous search.
``I think 99.99 percent of Americans will want these ID cards,'' Ellison said. ``Wouldn't you feel better if everyone who walked into an airport showed their ID card and put their thumb in the scanner and you knew they were who they said they were?''
The cards would be mandatory, however, for foreign visitors, including students on visas and non-citizens living and working in the United States who now carry ``green cards,'' he said. Ellison has not offered specifics on how the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants in the United States might be affected.
The national ID card idea has won the approval of retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Harvard law professor and civil rights expert Alan Dershowitz and Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy in the past week.
More important, it is now supported by Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, who met with Ellison on Thursday. Feinstein said she will write a letter this week to Ashcroft asking the Bush administration to move forward.
``There has to be some ID,'' Feinstein said. ``We have had a major catastrophe. This is a very serious time. The country is at war. The purpose here is to protect ourselves.''
Mindi Tucker, a spokeswoman for Ashcroft, said the attorney general would have no comment Tuesday night.
Concern for liberty
Critics say such a card would give government too much power to track citizens.
``ID cards were used by the South African government to keep apartheid in place and by Malaysia to separate religious people by group,'' said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C.
Rotenberg and other opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, worry it could be required to board buses, apply for jobs, or even enter cities facing terrorist threats.
But supporters say those concerns are overblown.
At a speech in Salt Lake City last week, former Desert Storm commander Schwarzkopf said he saw nothing wrong with ID cards. ``I've had a military ID card since I was a cadet at West Point and I haven't lost any freedom,'' he told a cheering crowd.
Taking another approach, Harvard lawyer Dershowitz said he believes having an ID card would reduce racial profiling at airports.
``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.
Dershowitz said the database would have to be carefully guarded and that police should not be able to ask for a card at will, a view Ellison and Feinstein share.
``You don't give up much,'' Dershowitz said. ``Civil libertarians will come around.''
Any move by the federal government to institute a national ID card system could mean millions for Silicon Valley companies.
Shalini Chowdhary, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, said the U.S. government could end up spending more than $3 billion on computer chips, hardware, software and services that go into creating so-called ``smart'' ID cards.
Ellison said that if he does donate the software, maintenance and upgrades won't be free.
``I don't think the government has any trouble paying for the labor associated with the software,'' he said. ``I made this offer not because the government can't afford to pay for the software, but because I shut up the critics who were saying, `Gee, Larry Ellison wants to build a national database because he wants to sell more databases,' which is pretty cynical and bizarre. What's in it for me is the same thing that's in it for you: a safer America.''
Contact Elise Ackerman at email@example.com