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Don't take ID risks Administration must safeguard privacy by seeking best border-crossing system

The U.S. government has always had legitimate identification needs at its borders. Those requirements became more crucial after the 9/1 1 terror attacks, and while the Bush administration clearly understands that fact, it has failed -- as it has in so many other areas -- to comprehend the matching need to strike an appropriate balance with the demands of the Constitution and the meaning of American life.

That disconnect is buzzing again as the administration moves toward use of the "radio frequency identification device" systems in whatever kind of government identification card ultimately may be required for cross-border travel. RFID, as the technology is known, is rife with the potential for abuse while providing little -- if anything -- more than is found in a competing technology.

A card equipped with RFID can be read from 20 feet away, even inside a pocket, meaning anyone with the right scanner can track an individual carrying the card. The potential for invasion of privacy, identity theft and other abuses is obvious, and it gives no comfort to understand that it would mainly be government officials using the scanners. After all, it was the Bush administration that reassured Americans it wouldn't abuse the right to look into Americans' reading habits via their library cards before doing that very thing.

This administration rejects border-crossing tests of a rival technology, the Smart Card already in use by the Defense Department, and insists on RFID despite its drawbacks. Only two factors seem to differentiate RFID from the Smart Card: the ability to read the card from a distance -- a Smart Card must come within inches of a reader before it gives up its data -- and the fact that one of the administration's decision-makers on this issue is a former executive in a company involved with RFID technology. Shades of Haliburton.

This is not an issue the American government should rush into. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, believes no new identification should be required for travel between the United States and Canada.

But, surely, it is not controversial to observe that if the government insists on pushing for a new identification technology, it should choose the more conservative approach -- the one that provides the government what it needs while doing a better job of protecting the privacy of millions of Americans who may have to carry the card.

Why should government need more than that?

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