Alleged ringleader Mohamed Atta and other suspects used debit cards to rent cars in the months before the attacks. In July, Fayez Ahmed, one of the hijackers on United Airlines' Flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower, rented a post-office box under his own name in Delray Beach, Fla.
These men were not going out of their way to hide their identities. In fact, they lived their lives in plain sight of the authorities. The problem was: No one was looking for them. Most of them anyway. Two of the hijackers were on a U.S. government watch list after one was spotted with a Malaysian suspected of being involved with the U.S.S. Cole bombing. But even with sophisticated surveillance, the FBI was unable to locate them.
INEFFECTIVE AND EXCESSIVE. Why, then, all the talk now about implementing a national identification system as part of the war on terrorism? The Bush Administration is not actively pushing legislation. Yet Represenative George Gekas (R-Pa.), who heads a subcommittee on immigration, says his office has been flooded with calls requesting a legislative debate.
On Sept. 21, no less than Oracle CEO Larry Ellison entered the fray, calling for the creation of a national ID system, even offering to donate the software to make it possible. "The privacy you're concerned about is largely an illusion. All you have to give up is your illusions, not any of your privacy. Right now, you can go onto the Internet and get a credit report about your neighbor and find out where your neighbor works and how much they earn," Ellison told TV station KPIX in San Francisco.
Perhaps. But creating a national ID system is precisely the kind of reactionary policy the U.S. should avoid. Contrary to what Ellison believes, it would reduce privacy by creating a government-sponsored tracking system for all citizens. More to the point, unless Americans were required to present their IDs everywhere they went ("Papers, please!"), a sweeping approach like a national ID system would do little to increase security, whereas more targeted strategies could be just as effective. A national ID system would have done nothing to prevent the four deadly hijackings of Sept. 11.
UNIQUE IDENTIFIER. Alas, that hasn't stopped the American public from jumping on the national ID bandwagon. A poll conducted Sept. 13 to 17 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press revealed that 70% of Americans said they favored a law requiring citizens to carry a national ID card at all times that would have to be produced upon request to a police officer. Twenty-six percent said they would be against such a proposal, while 4% remained undecided.
What exactly would a national ID card look like? Put simply, it would be a national driver's license, with a barcode that holds a fingerprint or retinal image, as well as a photograph. It would also include a unique identifier, like a Social Security number, that commercial and law-enforcement officials could run through a database to check information such as the person's immigration status, tax records, and credit history.
Privacy advocates say that number is the most threatening to privacy. If citizens were required to show their ID card to open a bank account, buy gas, or board an airplane, the government would be creating a massive tracking database of every citizen -- suspicious or otherwise. "To work, we would create records on citizens heretofore unseen in a nonpolice state. All to track a few terrorists who...use[d] their real names and credit cards anyway. What good would it do?" says Richard Smith, chief technology officer of the Privacy Foundation.
FINLAND'S LEAD. Would a less intrusive system work? Not to prevent terrorism. Cards that don't allow law-enforcement officials to efficiently zero in on suspects at any time would fail to deliver on any counterterrorism promise. "For a national ID card to actually do what its proponents claim it would, someone would have to watch every individual's move from when they got into their car and where they drove to what they bought throughout the day," says David Banisar, deputy director of Privacy International.
That's not to say that a system of national ID cards wouldn't have some benefits. To see why, just look at Finland, which launched electronic national IDs in December, 1999. Besides being simply a unique identifier, the card has an embedded chip that functions as a mini-computer when inserted into a computer-card reader. These cards can hold all sorts of information in a digital lock-box, from bank accounts to social security numbers to specific privileges for accessing software or television channels.
The fact that the cards are linked to Finnish national ID numbers makes them ideal as means of authentication. Though the program is still in its early stages, government officials believe the ID cards will form the cornerstone of a sophisticated system of secure electronic transactions. That, however, has everything to do with creating a national ID card for a small, homogeneous nation and little to do with preventing terrorism.
DANGER ZONES. Security can be improved via simpler, more direct methods without creating a monster tracking system of American citizens. Take the trash cans that line the streets of major metropolitan areas such as New York. These receptacles are an easy place for terrorists to hide homemade bombs. So why not remove them from streets and subway stations? This is an obvious counterterrorism measure used in cities like London and Jerusalem, which are under constant threat, yet even the proactive New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has made no effort to get a similar plan under way.
Other plans should take sharp aim at danger zones such as airports and other transport routes. On Sept. 25, the largest pilots' union submitted a practical proposal that would allow commercial pilots to carry handguns to defend themselves against hijackers. Pilots would not be required to carry weapons, and those who did would be forced to submit to psychological testing and extensive training as well as background checks before receiving approval. So far, Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey says she's open to the idea.
The U.S. could also require background checks on agricultural workers who could have the skills and access to equipment that might be used in biological and chemical attacks. Already, New Jersey is considering such a proposal for truck drivers who carry hazardous materials. "There are lots of ways to improve security," says the Privacy Foundation's Smith. "Are national ID cards going to help? I don't think so."
A targeted response is the best way to prevent terrorism. A national ID system would be both expensive (surely in tens of millions of dollars to implement) and largely ineffective, unless we want to overturn freedoms that Americans take for granted. Perfect security is an illusion in today's world. We must focus on rational measures -- or risk falling into another terrorist trap. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online. Follow her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column, only on BW Online