Archives: 03/2010

Schumer and Graham on Immigration Reform: Why Not Do it Without the Biometric National ID?

There is much to commend in the op-ed on immigration reform that Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) published in this morning’s Washington Post. Unfortunately, they lead with their worst idea: a biometric national ID card, mandatory for all American workers.

Here’s the good: “Americans overwhelmingly oppose illegal immigration and support legal immigration,” they say. “Throughout our history, immigrants have contributed to making this country more vibrant and economically dynamic.”

Their plan includes problem-solving proposals: “creating a process for admitting temporary workers” and “implementing a tough but fair path to legalization.” The latter would reduce the population of illegal aliens in the U.S.—good—and the former would reduce the need to enter illegally in the first place—also good.

Joined with the enhanced border security they propose, these ideas would address the immigration challenge as well as anyone knows how. (Details matter, and my colleagues will have more to say, I’m sure.)

But then there is their gratuitous national ID proposal for all American workers, and stepped up interior enforcement. “Interior enforcement” is a euphemism for “rounding up illegal workers” under some administrations and “raiding employers” under others.

This is the most specific Senator Schumer has ever been about his biometric national ID proposal, though he’s had it in mind since at least 2007. But it is hardly satisfactory, and the claim there will be no national ID database is almost certainly not true.

Here is the paragraph that captures the senators’ plan:

We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. Each card’s unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card; no government database would house everyone’s information. The cards would not contain any private information, medical information, nor tracking devices. The card will be a high-tech version of the Social Security card that citizens already have.

I’ll parse the senators’ description of their national ID plan here. In a later post, I’ll examine how the Schumer-Graham biometric national ID stacks up in terms of privacy, cost, and other considerations. Of course, in the decade or two it will take to build this extravagant national identity system, we will learn much more than I can predict.

We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card.

First, let there be no doubt that this is a national ID card. As I’ve written in past, a national ID has three characteristics: It is national—this is. It’s practically or legally required—this is. And it’s for identification—yep.

Students of card security will recognize one of the adjectives in the sentence as rather extravagant.  No, it’s not “high-tech”—that’s a throwaway. The extravagant claim is “fraud-proof.”

The senators may mean one of  three things, only one of which might be true. All three have to be true or their implication of a bullet-proof card system is false:

1) Impervious to fraud in issuance. Issuance is the weakest link in card security. Today at the hundreds and hundreds of DMVs across the country, ingenious young people (under 21—understand their motivation?) regularly submit identity documents falsely—siblings’ birth certificates or driver’s licenses, for example, or fake Social Security cards, utility bills, and such. Illegal aliens do too. Many DMV workers are gulls. Some can be made willing gulls for the right price. The same will be true of Social Security Administration workers. If the motivation is high enough, there is no practical way of making a national identity document fraud-proof in issuance.

2) Impervious to alteration. With various printing methods, secure card stocks, and encryption, card security is the easiest to do. It is possible to create a card that can’t be altered except at extraordinary expense.

3) Impervious to forgery. Odd though it may seem, technology does not govern whether a card can be forged—motivation does. Any card can can be forged if the price is right. Were a single card to provide entrée  to work in the United States, it’s virtually guaranteed that criminal enterprises would forge the physical card and defeat the digital systems they need to.

The idea of a “fraud-proof” card (in whatever sense the senators mean) sounds nice. But it doesn’t bear up under the stresses to be encountered by a national ID system that governs whether people can earn a living (and probably much more). During the decade or more that this system is being designed and implemented, new ways of attacking biometrics and encryption will emerge. A reasonably ”fraud-proof” card today is not still fraud-proof in 2020.

Each card’s unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card; no government database would house everyone’s information.

It is possible to have a biometric card without a biometric database. The card would hold a digital description of the relevant biometric (such as fingerprint or iris scan). That algorithm would be compared by the card or by a reader to the person presenting it, determining wether it should be accepted as theirs.

The promise not to create a biometric database is a welcome one. The senators should require—in law—that the enrollment process and technology be fully open and transparent so that non-government technologists can ensure that the system does not secretly or mistakenly collect biometrics.

But the promise not to create a national identity database is almost certainly false.

Let’s review how an identity card is issued at a motor vehicle office today: People take the required documents to a DMV and hand them over. If the DMV accepts their documentation, the DMV creates a file about the person containing at least the material that will be printed on the card—including the person’s photograph. Then the DMV gives the person a card.

What would happen if DMVs didn’t keep this file? A couple of things—things that make the senators’ claim not to be creating a national identity database highly doubtful.

If there were no file and a card were lost or stolen, for example, the person would have to return to the card issuer again—with all the documents—and run through the entire process again. Because they have databases, DMVs today can produce a new ID and mail it to the address of record based on a phone call or Internet visit. (They each have their own databases—much better than a single database or databases networked together.)

If no file exists, multiple people could use the very same documents to create ID card after ID card after ID card in the same name but with different biometrics. Workers in the card issuing office could accept bribes with near impunity because there would be no documents proving that they had issued cards wrongly. Criminal use of the system would swamp it.

So that they can provide customer service, and for security reasons, state DMVs keep information about license holders, including a biometric of a sort—a photograph. Senators Schumer and Graham may think that they are designing a database-free biometric identity system—such a thing can exist—but the realities they confront will drive it to become a full-scale biometric national identity database.

The cards would not contain any private information, medical information, nor tracking devices.

This is a welcome pledge, and to fulfill it, they should bar—in law—the use of writeable chips or RFID chips. And there is no way to prevent the card itself from acting as a tracking device. It will be a pointer to private medical information, financial information, and much more.

Understand that the Social Security number is an identifier. It is already used in government, throughout the financial services system, and in much of health care to administer services and benefits, and to perform surveillance (both for good or for bad).

With a uniform biometric Social Security card in the hands of every worker, the card would be demanded at more and more points in society. Americans would have to present their national ID when they use credit cards, when they check into hotels, at bars, in airports, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and so on.

A card may contain only a biometric algorithm and a Social Security number—unlikely though that may be. It will still act as a tracking device when it integrates with the card readers and databases that grow up around it.

The card will be a high-tech version of the Social Security card that citizens already have.

This claim—to be making a simple, sensible change to the Social Security card—is wrong. The biometric national identification scheme Senators Schumer and Graham propose is much, much more than a “high-tech” Social Security card. It’s the biggest, most difficult identity system ever proposed. It will take decades and tens or hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to build.

About the only similarity between today’s Social Security card and the biometric national ID card these senators propose is that they’re both rectangular.

In an earlier post, I called Senator Graham’s support of Schumer’s national ID plan inexplicable (before taking a stab at explaining it). Seeing the outline of their entire proposal, which would alleviate various pressures and begin a welcome transition back toward the rule of law in the immigration area, I am truly at a loss to understand why they would attach this grauitous and punitive plan to force law-abiding American citizens into a biometric national ID system.

Senators, why not do it without the national ID?

Davy Crockett’s Lesson for Congress

Fess Parker, the actor who portrayed both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in classic television shows, has died at the age of 85. In his honor, I offer this version of Parker singing the theme song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”:

And more substantively, I note that Col. David Crockett served three terms in Congress from Tennessee, where he is best known for delivering a speech known as “Not Yours to Give.” In response to a proposal for an appropriation to benefit the widow of a naval officer, Rep. Crockett said:

I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money. …

We cannot, without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity. Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.

He went on to quote a constituent who had complained when he previously voted for a similar measure:

The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.

He may not actually have patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell, but he did his best to preserve the Constitution.

SAFRA-ficed?

Here’s a quick, preliminary reaction to the higher-education portion of the mammoth health-care reconciliation bill. I could find I’m wrong about some stuff as I delve more deeply into the bill’s language, but it appears that much of the out-of-control spending that would have occurred under the odious Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act has been axed under reconciliation. SAFRA, it appears, has been sacrificed, though to bring to life an even more destructive demon.

Unfortunately, some of SAFRA survived. While a great deal of the spending has been stripped out, reconciliation would still tighten the federal government’s already iron grip on college financing. It would also plow billions more into Pell grants despite decades of evidnece that schools just eat such increases by raising prices. And don’t be fooled by the deceptive accounting in which administrative costs for guaranteed lending are counted as mandatory, but for direct lending as discretionary. When one fully accounts for the costs of going to all direct lending the estimated savings drop from $19.4 billion to $14.4 billion between 2010 and 2019, a sizable chunk of change for a nation so in debt it needs to save every penny it can.

GOP Congressmen: Most Republicans Now Think Iraq War Was a Mistake

In a Thursday panel at Cato on conservatism and war, U.S. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and John Duncan (R-Tenn.) revealed that the vast majority of GOP members of Congress now think it was wrong for the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003.

The discussion was moderated by Grover Norquist, who asked the congressmen how many of their colleagues now think the war was a mistake.

Rohrabacher:

“I will say that the decision to go in, in retrospect, almost all of us think that was a horrible mistake. …Now that we know that it cost a trillion dollars, and all of these years, and all of these lives, and all of this blood… all I can say is everyone I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now.”

McClintock:

“I think everyone [in Congress] would agree that Iraq was a mistake.”

Watch the clip:

Lawrence Lessig’s Constitutional Amendment

Lawrence Lessig has proposed a constitutional amendment in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.  It reads:

“Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power to limit, though not to ban, campaign expenditures of non-citizens of the United States during the last 60 days before an election.”

In Citizens United, the Court said that the First Amendment concerns speech rather than speakers. Congress has no power to discriminate against speakers; hence, a source of speech - people organized as a corporation - could not be prohibited from speaking (or funding speech).

Professor Lessig hopes to introduce a discrimination among speakers into the First Amendment. His proposed discrimination will not lose a popularity contest. He wishes to allow Congress to control the speech of non-citizens.  He follows two lines of argument in support of his amendment, one less rational than the other.

The less rational line of appeal to the reader is both implicit and predictable. The Chinese are invoked along with the Chamber of Commerce. A denial of xenophobic intent follows immediately, and “We the People” appear near the end. Carl Schmitt would recognize the rhetorical construction of “friend and enemy.” Rather cleverly, Lessig manages to equate the foreign devils with the internal demons of the liberal mind. Corporations (including the Sierra Club?) and the Chinese (or other foreigner) are on one side of political struggles while “We the People” are on the other.

Lessig’s more rational line of argument: “elections are private. It is we - citizens- who are to select who is to govern us. And it is completely appropriate for us to protect the debate we have about that selection by limiting disproportionate spending by non-citizens.” He later suggests the propriety of “protecting elections against undue influence by non-citizens.”

Notice Lessig moves from an widely-held premise “only citizens should select those who govern” to conclude “we should protect elections against the undue influence of non-citizens.” His idea of “dependence” relates his premise to his conclusion. Allowing spending by non-citizens would make voters dependent on them and thus preclude select of the our rulers by “us.”

What is missing here, oddly enough, is the citizens themselves. After all, the non-citizens do not simply give money to voters. They spend money to create and communicate political speech. Voters are the intermediaries between that speech and the selection of government officials. Citizens decide how much influence political speech of all kinds should have.  Lessig’s concern about undue influence seems to be a concern that voters will be fooled by internal or external foreigners to the detriment of our nation. But the Constitution says that citizens, whatever their failings, are the best filter of speech.

Lessig’s amendment would substitute the judgment of Congress for that of citizens at least in regard to the speech of non-citizens.  Congress would decide how much spending on speech is “due” and how much would lead to “undue influence” by non-citizens. A court would then be called upon to decide whether the limits chosen by Congress constitute a de facto ban on speech. This process of legislating and litigation would yield how much speech citizens are allowed to hear.

Keep in mind that not all the ideas of foreigners are inimical to the people of the United States. Liberals did not seem to mind the support Barack Obama received from cheering crowds in Berlin. Perhaps Americans should hear about the suffering caused abroad by trade protectionism. It is also true that the interests of foreigners are sometimes at odds with the interests of Americans. Who should decide which ideas espoused by foreigners are good for the nation and which inimical? Should Congress decide or citizens?

We might also wonder whether Lessig’s amendment would even apply to corporations. The corporation is a product of contracts among owners and others. These contracts provide for agents who run the corporation and decide many things including whether to fund political speech on behalf of the enterprise. All of this, contracts included, are the actions of real people, most of whom will be citizens. Would a court define “non-citizens” as a group of citizens who associate together in the corporate form?

Lessig invokes the framers of the Constitution to support his concern about non-citizens. Here he has some historical warrant for his arguments. The founders were concerned about foreign influences undermining the new republic in favor of monarchy. But the United States is now much older and more stable and aptly open to foreign influence through investment and trade. If anything, its citizens are too concerned about the dangers coming from abroad. That is all the more true when the non-citizen or “the foreigner” is identified as other Americans who happen to be associating in a corporate form.



Joe Scarborough on War

Former Congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough delivered the keynote address at today’s conference on the topic of conservatism and the war in Afghanistan.

During his speech, Scarborough took on neo-conservatives, Obama’s foreign policy record since taking office, and why the United States is still at war.

“In 2010, there’s not much difference between the Republicans’ view on foreign policy and the Democrats’ view of  foreign policy,” said Scarborough. “President Obama… this anti-war president, has doubled the number of troops to Afghanistan to nearly 100,000… and he’s continued the transformation of the Afghanistan effort from a counterterrorism mission to a nation-building mission.”

For more,  listen in:

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Who I’m Not Voting For

It’s that time of year again, when friends start telling me about this or that candidate I should support because he or she is a dedicated defender of liberty and limited government. I’m a political junkie, so I love getting these recommendations. But I don’t end up supporting or contributing to many candidates. In my view, it’s not enough for a candidate to say that he’s ”committed to slashing wasteful spending, providing tax relief, and eliminating red tape.” What’s your actual tax plan? What spending do you propose to cut or eliminate? Not many of them offer clear answers to that.

And liberty involves more than just economics. Often I’m told, “Congressman X is a libertarian.” I always check, and then I say, “He voted for the war, the Patriot Act, and the Federal Marriage Amendment. Sounds like a conservative.” Now a conservative who opposed President George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar spending increase, his Medicare expansion, and his stepped-up federal involvement in education is a lot better than your average member of Congress. But those votes do not a libertarian make.

This year I’m looking for candidates who stand for freedom across the board, who want government constrained by the Constitution, who believe in the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.

And that means I don’t want to back candidates who support

  • the war in Iraq
  • the war in Afghanistan
  • war with Iran
  • the war on drugs
  • the constitutional amendment to override state marriage laws and make gay people second-class citizens
  • the president’s power to snatch American citizens off the street and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge
  • new restrictions on immigration

So don’t everybody write at once. But I’ll be looking out for political candidates who support liberty and limited government across a wide range of issues.