The Universal Card

Some complex problems have simple solutions.  Gaining acceptance and implementing the solutions are often complex.  Consider these four seemingly disparate problems: (1) pernicious, intrusive passenger security measures at airports, (2) credit card fraud, (3) stolen personal identity, and (4) illegal immigration.  They do have an element in common: personal identification.

With today's global economy, relative ease of travel, and technological advancements, the ability to identify oneself with certainty is perhaps one of the great freedoms to be relished.  In our daily activities, we are routinely required to produce identification when using a credit card, boarding aircraft, entering an athletic club, producing a driver's license, entering some establishments like Costco, and the list goes on.  Few people object.  It has become a part of our everyday life, and it has spawned an avalanche of means -- usually some form of a plastic or paper card.  Our wallets and purses are full of them.  The average American carries at least ten to twelve.

The federal government has created an international uproar with new airline passenger screening procedures.  Terrorist have won a battle by forcing massive cost and disruption across the globe.  On the other hand, this needs to be put into perspective.  Every community in the nation spends a large part of its budget to protect citizens from ordinary criminals.  And defense of the nation against terrorists represents a significant percentage of the national budget.  What needs to be considered is how we can assist in this vigilance against criminals and terrorists without excessive personal intrusion or inconvenience.  Technology provides a better way than body searches of every airline passenger by machine or human hands.

The reason why credit card fraud is still a significant financial hit to the industry -- estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually -- is because there is no direct connect between the person presenting a credit card and the card itself.  It is nothing more than an ordinary piece of plastic with an account number and name embedded in both the card itself and the ancient-technology magnetic stripe (for ease in machine-reading the number and name -- not for security).  I proposed that IBM-designed stripe to the American Bankers Association's Technical Committee in 1970, forty years ago!  The credit card has not basically changed since it was first introduced by Diner's Club in 1950.  The difference between credit card brands such as Visa and Mastercard is merely the terms and conditions of use and payment, which have nothing to do with the plastic card itself. 

Connecting the credit card to its rightful owner is supposed to be established when it is used by showing some form of other identification that matches the name on the card, but this process is often eschewed.  Obtaining false identification such as a driver's license or some other form of identification with the owner's name is simple for anyone bent on fraud.  The credit card industry is ripe for major changes in process, policies, marketing, and technology.

The third problem, stolen identity, has been increasing in recent years, as a means both to rob someone by using his credit cards and to gain illegal access into various commercial accounts, or to gain access into places where the individual is not normally permitted, or to establish oneself as a citizen.  The misuse of Social Security numbers (SSN) is prevalent in identity theft because an SSN is unique to the individual and has nationwide acceptance.  Yet stealing SSNs is not difficult, and the act is one of the major means of ID theft.  Like the credit card, the SSN is subject to misuse because there is no direct connect between the number itself and the person using it.  Technology can solve this problem also.

Illegal immigration has become a cause célèbre among politicians and the general public.  No one actually knows the number of illegals in the United States, but it is estimated in the millions.  The government has been slow to close the borders, accost the illegals, or enforce the laws already on the books.  The cost of the illegals to the American taxpayer is staggering.  Worst of all, the government has little idea of how to solve this problem, or else it lacks the political will to do so.

There, in the proverbial nutshell, is the crux of four major national problems demanding resolution, all tied inextricably to establishing one's identity with 100% accuracy and in a fraud-proof way.  Americans need a safe, foolproof identification card.  But wait!  American citizens already have a national card that will do just that!  It is called a Social Security card (SSC), which is available to all Americans at birth, or to immigrants when receiving citizenship or work permits.  Like all the other cards previously mentioned, the purpose of the SSN is to identify a number -- in this case, the Social Security Number -- unique to the individual named on the card. 

Like credit and other cards, however, there is no connection between the card and the person presenting it.  That problem can be easily fixed by offering those persons with a legitimate SSC a voluntary replacement card that is tamper-proof and ties the bearer to it through biometric identifiers such as fingerprints or eye/face scans. 

Use of an enhanced Social Security card is not a new idea.  It was first suggested to Congress by Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham in March 2010.  Many examples of such tamper-proof ID cards now exist.  Eventually, this "card" could become a part of individual's iPhone and other similar devices rather than a credit card-like device.  Biometric scanners are even available for online internet use. 

The hue and cry of "Big Brother," "invasion of privacy," and other often unfounded criticism greeted Senators Schumer's and Graham's proposal.  The primary faults with the senators' proposal are that it does not offer a sufficient incentive to the public to convert the existing paper Social Security Card to a new one, nor does it address the citizens' fear of further government intrusion of their lives.  Thus, a legitimate question is, "Will citizens voluntarily opt to replace their Social Security card, considering past and current opposition?" 

The answer is "yes" if the people are first informed that the only required information on a new SSC would be less than that required on their current driver's license, and far less than the information about them now contained in one or more of the files of the three major credit reporting companies, the Veterans Administration, credit-card issuing banks, the FBI, departments of motor vehicles, and the Social  Security administration itself, just to name a few.  Biometric identifiers on the new card would prevent someone else from using someone else's card or SSN. 

Secondly, that same card could eventually replace all or most of the other cards and licenses in the purse or wallet, and at the same time, it solves the four problems noted at the beginning of this article.

Finally, the replacement would be voluntary for citizens. 

It is these special characteristics of a universal use card, as opposed to a single-use national ID card, when issued on a voluntary basis, that will make one acceptable and desired by the public.  The new card would not -- repeat -- not require a new, massive, single database of information so dear to the critics, but instead, it would use existing, multiple databases.  No "big brother" national database,  no invasion of privacy.  Sorry, ACLU.  Technology makes this possible.

Since no one can misuse the SSN due to biometric ID, the Social Security number itself could eventually replace commercial account numbers, membership numbers, driver license numbers, and all others that currently attempt to link the individual to an account or activity.  Some years ago, the Armed Forces changed from special serial numbers for troops to the SSN.  Think of the convenience of one number for all your retail store accounts, credit and cash card accounts, licenses -- maybe even your license plate!

No new technology is involved.  What is involved is a national effort to create such a card -- i.e., cooperation of the feds, state governments, and commercial and private enterprises that currently rely upon some form of ID.  Current issuers would save millions by not having to physically issue cards.  Credit card fraud would diminish to near zero; ID theft would be a problem of the past.  Legal immigrants could obtain jobs without fear.  Airport security processes would be expedited.  Travel in general would be easier.

Consumers would enjoy a new freedom from a "pocketful of cards."  They would also have the freedom to be able to identify themselves without a doubt in the pursuit of their daily lives.  Thus, a good name for this new Social Security card would be the "United States Freedom Card."  The Social Security Administration could issue the new cards by contracting with one or more major credit card companies to design and operate the system from secure facilities.  This is a five- to ten-year program.

And that is how you solve four complex problems with a simple solution, but with complex acceptance and implementation processes.  There are no doubt a "hundred" questions, and there are "100" answers.  Let the debate begin.

C. W. "Bill" Getz is a former vice president for systems, operations, and security of a major international credit card company and former assistant controller for information systems of the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy).