WASHINGTON -- Imagine a so-called smart card that contains your U.S. government-confirmed identity, complete with biometric confirmation, plus your three credit card accounts, your check card account, and possibly even your health records.
Such a card, containing a small chip that could store kilobytes of data, could let you zoom through the toll stations on your local highway, act as a passport when you cross international borders, and contain your passwords to a number of e-commerce Web sites. If this sounds a little far-fetched, it is--for the moment.
But advocates of government-mandated smart cards described many uses for a small piece of plastic intended to protect the U.S. from illegal aliens and terrorists, during a discussion here Tuesday.
Many privacy advocates have protested proposals to create a national identification card, saying such a card could be used to amass databases of information about U.S. residents and their travels. Backers of the Real ID Act, passed by Congress in May, are careful to say it doesn't create a national ID, but it would set minimum standards that states must follow in order for their driver's licenses to remain valid federal identification.
With the Real ID Act, Congress did not intend to create a series of hard-to-comply-with rules but to encourage minimum standards for states to verify the identities of driver's license holders, said Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican.
"We weren't trying to carve out artificially high standards," said Davis, speaking at a biometrics policy forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "This is not an unfunded mandate [to states]."
Even Davis' call for moderate standards didn't stop other backers of national smart ID cards from dreaming of a wide number of uses for a card with machine-readable memory capacity. There could be some privacy risks if smart ID cards are implemented badly, but smart card technology holds much promise, said Paul Rosenzweig, senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Regulations attached to the Real ID Act could allow a variety of commercial uses, including a link to credit cards or check cards, Rosenzweig said. "The start-up cost borne by the government will be the seed money for commercial enterprise," he predicted.
Smart Card Boosters
The Real ID Act, passed as part of a defense and antiterrorism funding bill, mandates that states require several forms of verifiable identification before issuing driver's licenses. States can choose to not comply law, but then their driver's licenses would not be accepted as federal ID, required for activities such as boarding commercial airplanes.
The Real ID Act also allows the Department of Homeland Security to specify the "machine-readable" technology used in federal IDs as well as any biometric data such as fingerprints or retina scans.
With these regulations not yet determined, the Real ID Act could be the beginning of a smart card boom, Rosenzweig said. He contends smart cards could provide a level of anonymity for users, if implemented correctly. For example, a smart card connected to a credit card could assure a retailer that the credit card has money enough to pay for a pair of dress pants without disclosing much additional personal information to the retailer, unless law enforcement agents dug into the transaction.
Rosenzweig called possible data masking by smart cards "pseudonymity." Smart card users could walk around with "practical obscurity" if the cards are implemented correctly, he said.
Joining Rosenzweig in calling for powerful smart cards was Rob Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank aligned with moderate Democrats. Atkinson called for government smart cards to have open standards that would allow businesses to "automate all kinds of processes."
Atkinson went further than Davis by calling for tough standards under the Real ID Act. If driver's licenses from many states aren't accepted as national ID, major confusion could result and terrorists with state-issued IDs could open bank accounts or rent cars, he said. Smart cards with biometic data would make fake IDs or driver's licenses purchased using fraudulent documents harder to get, he said.
Under the old system, which lacked national standards for issuing state driver's licenses, fake IDs are easy to obtain online, Atkinson said. He said several college students interviewed for internships either had fake IDs or knew where to get one, he said.
"If a college student can get it, a dedicated terrorist certainly can get it," he added.
Although most of the speakers Tuesday supported smart ID cards, several acknowledged the cards could create privacy and security concerns if implemented improperly, said Nancy Libin, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group. Most people, if given a choice of one key that would open their house, open their car, start their car, and open several other locks, would likely choose to carry multiple keys because of the fear of losing the one multi-use key, Libin said.
Likewise, a smart card that includes a national ID, multiple credit card accounts, and other data could cause many problems if it was lost, she said.
Libin also noted that biometric scans that some people want linked to smart cards are not foolproof. For example, fingerprints could be digitally copied and duplicated, she said.
"Unlike passwords, biometrics aren't secret, and they cannot be easily modified," she added. "Once that biometric has been ... compromised, it's done. It cannot be reissued, it's finished."