You are Your Own Identification Card

The furor last month following the issuance of student visas to suicide hijackers Mohammed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi is wholly misplaced. As was the furor last October over the proposal by software magnate Larry Ellison that the United States begin issuing national identification cards.

As at least Ellison should know, visas, passports and ID cards are wholly unnecessary.

You are an identification card. A living, breathing one that is exponentially harder to forge than a laminated card, an application form or a pocket-size brochure of any kind.

Matching the geometry of a hand is successful 999 times out of 1,000. Matching fingerprints is accurate in all but one in 100,000 attempts. Checking iris structures is always right, when the test is performed correctly.

The bottom line is this: if anyone is paying attention at the State Department, the Justice Department or its Immigration and Naturalization Service, the technology is here today to supplant all forms of paper identification, and it is reliable. If George W. Bush has the determination, this country today can accurately identify and check the background of every person from any part of the globe who wishes to enter or exit—or move about inside its borders.

Someone doesn’t want to submit to the scanning of hand, finger, eye or facial features that a cardless system of identification requires? Let the person stay put. How does the operator of a flight school in Florida, for instance, really know the fellows he says he trained were Atta and Alshehhi? Because they signed their names that way? Because they said so? Please.

Just about anybody could have shown up. It’s time we get over the effort to hide our identities and realize there are dangers with privacy, too. Identity increasingly translates to safety. Avoidance means threat.

Look at what it is going to take to commute to work at the Erez checkpoint on the Gaza Strip. If anything approaching “normalcy” returns, roughly 50,000 workers twice a day will be allowing measurements of their hands and their faces to be validated before they cross the border. When the process works correctly, the hand reader and cameras okay passage in seven seconds.

Already at Ben-Gurion Airport, frequent travelers use their hands as a toll tag for quickly boarding planes out of the country. It’s optional, but, if you have nothing to hide, you sign up for the service. The police spend more time clearing those passengers who haven’t identified themselves in this fashion.

How long before this hand-geometry technology reaches U.S. airports? No time at all. It’s already at New York’s JFK International Airport, as well as airports in Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington.

How many people know this? Not many. There are only about 45,000 active users. Only 300,000 admissions have been cleared by this INSPASS program since it was instituted in 1995. You probably had no idea you had a fast alternative to wading through customs.

But this is typical of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This is an agency that, until recently, spent in excess of $300 million a year on information technology. In 1994, it awarded a $300 million contract to Electronic Data Systems, of Plano, Texas, to build a “comprehensive agencywide information infrastructure.” In 1998, it went for another five years and $750 million with EDS, Computer Sciences Corp. and three other companies for a second phase of modernization.

Yet here we are in 2002 and you can’t even fill out online any of the scores of INS forms, from the “Application for Permission to Return to an Unrelinquished Domicile” to the “Petition to Classify Orphan as an Immediate Relative.” Oh, you can download some forms, finally, and fill out fields on your personal computer at home. But you still have to mail in the finished forms.

This isn’t a moon shot. It shouldn’t take billions to get this critical national security agency up to speed. If necessary, send the contractors home and hire a swat team of four programmers and two technicians from a small, thirsty shop that can bring this country into the current millennium.

Lest we all forget, there’s a war on.