Tag: national id

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?

Senator Graham’s Inexplicable National ID Support

Compromise is catnip in Washington, D.C. That’s my best guess at why Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) would endorse New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s (D) widely reviled plan to create a mandatory biometric national ID system.

Schumer’s national ID plans have no more definition today than when he wrote about them in his 2007 campaign manifesto Postitively American. Among the thin gruel of that book is a two-page lump displaying more ignorance than understanding of how identity systems work and fail. Schumer doesn’t know the difference between an identifier—a characteristic used to distinguish or group people—and an identification card or system, which does the entire task of proving a person’s previously fixed identity. (My thin gruel on the topic is the book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.)

“All the national employment ID card will do is make forgery harder,” says Schumer.

No, that’s not all it would do: It would also subject every employment decision to the federal government’s approval. It would make surveillance of law-abiding citizens easier. It would allow the government to control access to health care. It would facilitate gun control. It would cost $100 billion dollars or more. It would draw bribery and corruption into the Social Security Administration. It would promote the development of sophisticated biometric identity fraud. How long should I go on?

Senator Graham’s take is equally simple: “We’ve all got Social Security cards,” he said to the Wall Street Journal. “They’re just easily tampered with. Make them tamper-proof. That’s all I’m saying.”

No, Senator, that’s not all you’re saying. You’re saying that native-born American citizens should be herded into Social Security Administration offices by the millions so they can have their biometrics collected in federal government databases. You’re saying that you’d like a system where working, traveling, going to the doctor, and using a credit card all depend on whether you can show your national ID. You’re saying that bigger government is the solution, not smaller government.

The point for these senators, of course, is not the substance. It’s the thrill they experience as nominal ideological opponents finding that they can agree on something, securing a potential breakthrough on the difficult immigration issue.

They’re only ”nominal” ideological opponents, though. Chuck Schumer has always been a big government guy—and long a supporter of having a national ID, despite the lessons of history. Lindsey Graham is not really his ideological opponent. Typical of politicians with years in Washington D.C., Graham is steadily migrating toward the big-government ideology that unites federal politicians and bureaucrats against the people.

Sen. Schumer’s Immigration Reform Is a National ID

So reports the Wall Street Journal:

Lawmakers working to craft a new comprehensive immigration bill have settled on a way to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants: a national biometric identification card all American workers would eventually be required to obtain.

It’s the natural evolution of the policy called “internal enforcement” of immigration law, as I wrote in my paper, “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

Once in place, watch for this national ID to regulate access to financial services, housing, medical care and prescriptions—and, of course, serve as an internal passport.

Symbols, Security, and Collectivism

The state of Nevada is one of few that is tripping over itself to comply with the REAL ID Act, the U.S. national ID law.

It’s worth taking a look at the sample license displayed in this news report, especially the gold star used on the license to indicate that it is federally approved.

The reasons for “improving” drivers’ licenses this way are complex. The nominal reason for REAL ID was to secure the country against terrorism. The presence of a gold star signals that this the card bears a correct identity and that watch-list checking has ensured the person is not a threat.

Don’t be too thrilled, though. The weakness of watch-listing was demonstrated again by the Christmas-day attempt on a Northwest airlines flight. The underpants bomber wasn’t listed, so checking his name against a watch-list didn’t do anything.

The real reason for REAL ID, though, was anti-immigrant fervor. If the driver licensing system distinguished between citizens and non-citizens, the theory goes, possession of a driver’s license can be used to regulate access not just to driving, but to working, financial services, health care, and anything else the government wants. Illegal presence in the country could be made unpleasant enough that illegal immigrants would leave.

Alas, human behavior isn’t that simple. If ‘driven’ to it—(I had to…)—people will get behind the wheel without licenses—and without the training that comes with licensing. Then they’ll crash. When the governor of New York briefly de-linked driver licensing and immigration status in 2007, he cited public safety and the likelihood that insurance rates would fall, to the benefit of New Yorkers. (When the state of New Mexico de-linked driver licensing and immigration status, uninsured vehicle rates in the state dropped from 33 percent to 17 percent.) But the governor suffered withering criticism from anti-immigrant groups and quickly reversed course.

Like linking immigration status and driving, linking immigration status and work through an ID system imposes costs on the law-abiding citizen. Complications and counterattacks raise costs on workers and employers while reducing the already small benefits of such programs. I articulated those in my paper on employment eligibility verification.

REAL ID transfers well-being and wealth from individuals to the state.

But let’s return to this gold star…

The article says that the Nevada ID is becoming one of the hardest in the country to forge. But it’s hard to be sure. The gold star may undermine the anti-forgery goal.

Forgery is the making or altering of a document with the intent to defraud or deceive. The question is not whether the whole document can be made—I’m sure the new Nevada license is bristling with security doodads—it’s whether a document can be made to deceive.

Watch for the people who check licenses to fall into the habit of checking the gold star and taking that as evidence that the document is “good.” By a small but relevant margin, ID checkers will forget to compare the picture on the license to the face of the person presenting it. (Gold star? Go.) Putting a gold star on the license may make forgery easier. It’s not about the technical feasibility of creating the card; it’s how to fool people.

But this gold star. It will be taken as a shorthand for “citizen.” There are examples from the past in which governments used symbols to assign status to populations. It’s easy to go overboard with such comparisons, but the Nevada license, with this gold star, takes a dramatic step toward carving the population into groups—groups that can be divided. Maybe soon two stars will be for military veterans, or people licensed to own firearms. Three stars could be for elected officials.

With this gold star system, a Nevada license-holder is a little less of a free, independent person with rights and privileges based on individual merit. A Nevadan becomes an undifferentiated status-holding subject. We’re a long way from the day when the “gold star” people are assigned to better rail cars, but the idea is that it should never happen. We should reject entirely the tools that could allow the government to do that.

Need a Mortgage? Your Papers, Please …

In case you need any evidence that the federal background check system would expand to cover many more things than employment, that process is already underway. H.R. 4586 would require someone seeking modification of a home mortgage loan held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to be verified under the E-verify program. (Same would go for modifying mortgages insured under the National Housing Act.)

REAL ID Retreats Yet Again

Several different outlets are noting the quiet passing of a Department of Homeland Security deadline to implement our national ID law, the REAL ID Act.

In May of 2008, with many states outright rejecting this national surveillance mandate, the DHS issued blanket waivers and set a new deadline of December 31, 2009 by which states were supposed to meet several compliance goals.

They have not, and the threat that the DHS/Transportation Security Administration would prevent Americans from traveling has quieted to a whimper.

The reason why? The federal government would be blamed for it. As Neala Schwartzberg writes in her review of the push and pull over REAL ID:

If I was a betting person (and I am from time to time) I’d bet the backed-up-down-the-corridor traveler who is then turned away after presenting his or her state-issued, official complete with hologram ID will blame Homeland Security.

Does the ongoing collapse of REAL ID leave us vulnerable?

Richard Esguerra of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says in this Wired article that REAL ID “threatens citizens’ personal privacy without actually justifying its impact or improving security.”

REAL ID remains a dead letter. All that remains is for Congress to declare it so. And it may be dawning on Congress that passing it a second time under the name “PASS ID” will not work.

University of Denver Panel Recommends You Have a National ID

If you have a job, a panel convened by the University of Denver thinks you should have a national ID card.

DU’s “Report of the Strategic Issues Panel on Immigration” says:

The idea of a national card for identifying citizens and non-citizens has become the third rail of immigration politics. But in truth, without a means of positive identification, it makes very little difference what immigration policies are adopted because they can’t be effectively enforced. A means of positive identification is essential to prevent the employment of illegal immigrants.

Only the panel’s narrow framing leads to this conclusion.

Restrictive immigration policies may require a national ID and federal background check system because such policies are so at odds with employers’ and workers’ interests. The federal government will have to continually investigate workers and employers to maintain them.

But policies that align immigration rates with our country’s demand for new workers would foster the rule of law naturally—without a national ID, worker surveillance, and an overweening federal government.

Much hand-waving animates the report. It imagines a card system that is “extremely difficult or impossible to counterfeit.” But that’s a product of how much value your card system controls—the more value, the more effort goes into forging it—and access to employment in the U.S. is worth a lot. The report says nothing about fraud in the card issuance process.

Nor does it calculate the expense to our nation’s seven million employers—many of them small businesses, families, and individuals—for getting card readers. Their proposal to hold employers harmless is an embossed invitation to fraud on the system—unless those inexpensive card readers are also fingerprint or iris scanners. If the system is going to work, someone legally responsible has to verify that the card belongs to the person presenting it. And if you’re going to use biometric scanners, there is a lot of work yet to be done to control error rates.

Of privacy concerns, the panel says it listened to “experts and advocates on all sides.” But the advisors listed in the report do not include any privacy expert or civil liberties advocate. They do include an advocate for restrictionist immigration policies, a police chief, a former U.S. attorney, a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, a Colorado state homeland security official, a federal Department of Homeland Security official, a sheriff, the Colorado Attorney General, and a CIA officer. It is unlikely that the one “immigrant rights” advocate addressed the privacy issues for U.S. citizens, much less the technical and data security problems.

It’s not new for people focusing on one issue to think that a national ID is their solution. In fact, it’s typical for people to think that sprinkling technology over economic and social problems can solve them.