Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Are we ready for a National ID card in America?

I read with interest the story about the National ID card.  Although I don’t like to link myself to one political party or another, I applaud the effort of trying to get a system in place for national ID. I like efficient data.

However, I have my doubts that a group of Senators can really understand the enormous challenges of such a project.  The issue is a politically charged one for certain, so that will be the focus. The details, which we all know contain the devil, will likely be forgotten.

I recall just a short time ago the US government’s Cash for Clunkers program. The program involved buying a new car and turning in your old “clunker” for a new fuel-efficient one.  The idea was to support the auto industry and get the gas guzzlers off the road. The devil was in the details, however. Rather than a secure web site with sufficient backbone to properly serve car dealerships, the program required the dealers complete pages and pages of paperwork… real paper paperwork…  and fax it into the newly formed government agency for approval. Then they hired workers on other end to enter the data. It was a business process that would have been appropriate for 1975, not 2010.

ACLU legislative counsel Christopher Calabrese said of this National ID program that “all of this will come with a new federal bureaucracy — one that combines the worst elements of the DMV and the TSA”. Based on recent history it’s an accurate description of what will likely happen.

If the government wants to do this thing, they need to bring in a dream team of database experts. Guys like Dr. Ralph Kimball or Bill Inmon, both of whom are world renown for data modeling, should contribute if they are willing.  They should ask in Dr. Rich Wang from MIT’s IQ program to be in charge of information quality issues.  They should invite guys like Jim Harris to communicate the complex issues to the public.  Also, they need to bring in folks with practical experience, like a Jill Dyche or Gwen Thomas.  There are probably some others that I haven’t mentioned. Security experts, hardware scalability experts and business process experts need to be part of the mix to protect the citizenry of the United States. They would need to make a plan without bias toward any district or political action committee.  That’s why a national database won’t happen.

Don’t get me wrong, if we do so, we could come up with much more efficient systems for checking backgrounds, I-9 job verification, international travel, and more. Identity theft is a big problem here and everywhere, but with a central citizen repository, the US could legislate a notification system when new bank accounts are opened in your name.  The census would always show a more accurate number and wouldn't cost billions and billions of dollars to us every ten years. Let's face it, the business process of the census, mailing paper forms and personal door to door interviews, is outdated.

Let’s start this by making it voluntary. If you want to be in the database and avoid long lines at the airport, fine.  If you want to be anonymous and wait, that’s fine, too.  We’ll get the kinks worked out with the early adopters and roll it out to the laggards later.

What we’re really talking about here is a personal primary key.  That data already exists in multiple linkable systems with your name and addresses (past and present) linking it.  We as data professionals spend a lot of time and effort working with data to try to find these links. So why not have a primary key to link your personal data instead? Are you really giving up anything that  DBAs haven't already figured out?

For those of you against a national database, I don’t think you have anything to fear.  Call me a skeptic, but given the political divide between groups, it’s unlikely that any national database of citizens will be done within this decade. But if you’re listening Senators and you decide to move forward, make sure you have the right people, processes and technology in place to do it right.


Anonymous said...

This is a pertinent issue not just for the United States but for all national and local governments the world over. Unfortunately politics always seems to get in the way. Here in Canada we had a disastrous attempt to modernize health records in the province of Ontario with all the worst kind of politics - untendered contracts, astronomical billings and out-of-control expenses. An auditor reported later that $1 billion dollars was wasted on this effort.

Ideally there is no reason why this shouldn't work. I like your idea of a personal primary key. I personally find it frustrating and archaic that I still have to deal with multiple departments for day-to-day government services. These services continue to exist as if we live in an unplugged world. If a national ID card were capable of linking all government services together, how awesome and efficient that would be!

You will always have those who argue that the national ID card is the first step to the "one world government" and will oppose the very concept on ideological grounds. But there is also the strong likelihood that any such project will be bungled, cost a fortune and fail anyway, as we have seen in Ontario. For some reason, sadly, pork barrel politics is an irresitible lure to those in power.

Steve Sarsfield said...

A thought - I type this response message using my Google Identity. (I also have the option of using OpenID.) Is it too far-fetched for the world to consider a commercial firm like Google or Yahoo for identity verification? Probably.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own and don't necessarily reflect the opinion of my employer. The material written here is copyright (c) 2010 by Steve Sarsfield. To request permission to reuse, please e-mail me.