In the coming months, a wave of government initiatives could start making such high-tech methods of identification commonplace — beginning with the replacement this fall of federal employee IDs. Similar cards are planned for transportation workers, first responders and visitors to the United States.
Packed with biometric data such as fingerprints and containing a computer chip with room to expand the amount of information stored, the new IDs represent a potential boon to technology companies eyeing an estimated $8 billion in identity-related contracts. Firms such as BearingPoint Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have set up showcase identity labs, pulling technology from different companies into turnkey operations. Hundreds of smaller companies, down to manufacturers of plastic cards, are vying for part of the market.
The biggest business opportunity still looms: Driver’s licenses, which are due for a retooling under new federal laws.
[…] In an era of chronic concern over terrorism and anxiety over immigration, the business of determining who is who has become increasingly urgent. But it is not without controversy. Americans have long resisted the idea of a national ID card, for example. The growing sophistication of computer databases and networks has heightened privacy concerns — as have data breaches, from the theft or loss of government computers to AOL’s online posting of 36 million keyword searches conducted by hundreds of thousands of subscribers. If the pool of government programs using the new identity technology gets large enough and the amount of information collected gets detailed enough, “there will be a lot of pressure for these programs to converge,” creating a de facto national identity system, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Use of a new government standard may prompt the private sector to follow. The banking, retailing and health-care industries are monitoring the federal initiatives, ready to apply stricter identity standards when dealing with their employees and customers. In an online world, the technology could also be used to establish that two people who never meet in person really are who they say they are.