Can ID Cards Spot Terrorists?

For many people, the idea of a national identity card carries the image of men with guns stopping ordinary citizens to check their IDs. That Orwellian aura is hard to shake.

But some are ready to give the idea a try, nonetheless, since Sept. 11. In the US, a few academics, and a few high-tech executives whose companies could make supposedly forgery-proof digitized cards, have come out in support of it as a way to track down would-be terrorists.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a national debate has erupted over an official proposal to reintroduce a national ID card. During and following World War II, the country had such cards. Their use was ended by Winston Churchill in 1953.

The sides in the debate pit those who see the cards as a practical way to safeguard legitimate identity and perhaps spot terrorists against those who see them as intrusive and probably ineffective.

The ineffectiveness argument revolves around whether it's possible to produce a card that terrorists, or criminals, could not duplicate. Forged ID is a perennial problem. Some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had bogus ID documents. Others had real IDs, such as drivers' licenses, obtained in states with loose residency requirements.

Some experts say a card that included electronically stored unique personal information, such as a fingerprint, couldn't be faked. Critics in Britain ask why they should be confident that cards with digitized personal information would get the information right. Some official databanks there have been rife with errors.

Other critics suspect that the main use of the cards would be to isolate immigrants - particularly asylum seekers, who often arrive with little documentation and thus little means of obtaining needed services.

Still, most of the British public (86 percent in a recent poll) said they favored some form of ID card. Interestingly, the American public is not that far behind. A late-September survey for the Pew Research Center found 70 percent of Americans in favor of national ID cards.

Short of creating a national identity card, there are some practical steps government should take - such as creating a comprehensive databank on individuals wanted for violations which would be accessible to all law-enforcement officers, federal or state.

But decision-makers, in the US and Britain, would do well to maintain a good deal of caution as they venture into this terrain.

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