Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Shiny, Happy SSA Employees

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a pair of briefings for congressional staff regarding electronic employment eligibility verification. A pair of bills are vying for the attention of Congress these days. I suggested in my recent paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” that Congress should ignore both. Indeed, it should eliminate “internal enforcement” of immigration law entirely.

One of my co-briefers provided staffers with some interesting information pertaining to the idea of building a regulatory contraption for automatic nationwide verification of workers’ identity and immigration status. He was a representative of SSA workers from the American Federation of Government Employees, National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals.

The programs slated to go national under these proposals would compare data about new workers (and in some cases, existing workers) with databases at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. When the data didn’t match, workers would receive what is called a “tentative nonconformation.” With the 4.1% error rate in SSA files (as found by its Inspector General), that’s a lot of tentative nonconfirmations going even to law-abiding American citizens. A higher percentage of the time, naturalized citizens would get them, too, as government data about them is even more error-prone. Bad government data is just one source of error.

Anyway, when a tentative nonconfirmation is issued, employers are supposed to communicate this to the employee (not all do) and the worker is supposed to report to a Social Security Administration office or the Department of Homeland Security to clear the problem up. This is where the interesting new information comes in.

What would the process be like? Well, try calling your local SSA field office to find out. The SSA worker rep reported that 50% of those calls aren’t answered because field offices are too busy. Calls to the SSA’s national 800-number don’t go through 25% of the time.

It’s not just a phone problem. The agency currently has a backlog of 752,000 on disability rulings. That’s three quarters of a million people who aren’t getting an answer from SSA. It takes 530 days – a little under a year and a half – to get a disability ruling out of SSA.

In my paper, I wrote about the experience American workers would get at the Social Security offices when they went to clear up their tentative nonconfirmations:

Disputes of tentative nonconfirmations would not happen in lushly carpeted offices with marble columns, hot coffee, and friendly, attentive staff. The experience of American workers when they sought permission to work would be much more like their trips to the nation’s departments of motor vehicles, post offices, and dentists—long lines, unfriendly service, and painful procedures.

The SSA union rep assures me that SSA workers are friendly. Any perception of unfriendliness is due to overwork. Fair enough; I may have been slapdash in my writing about SSA employees. But a national electronic employment eligibility verification system would result in 3.6 million new visits to these folks, overworking them and eroding their courtesy even more. These visits, and administering tentative nonconfirmations at SSA, would cost $1 billion, according to the union rep.

Of course, an SSA employee union rep would happily take the money and add workforce to do whatever Congress wants. My preference is to save the money. Enforcement of our abnormally restrictive immigration law causes us to spend taxpayer money on undermining the productive economy. That shouldn’t make sense to anyone.

Voter ID Case Decided

The Supreme Court has rendered its decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. This is the case challenging Indiana’s voter ID requirement.

Briefly, the plaintiffs in the case did not establish sufficient proof of the burden on voting that the ID requirement would have. This was a facial challenge to the statute, and there was no plaintiff who had actually been dissuaded or prevented from voting. Sayeth the court:

[O]n the basis of the record that has been made in this litigation, we cannot conclude that the statute imposes “excessively burdensome requirements” on any class of voters.

There was also no evidence that Indiana has ever been victimized by impersonation at the polling place, which a voter ID requirement would help thwart, but in a facial challenge to a law like this, courts will defer to the state’s interests in deterring and detecting voter fraud, and in safeguarding voter confidence.

Advocates of voter ID will interpret this as a ringing endorsement, but it’s an unsurprising result. Hopefully, they won’t pursue a national voter identification requirement. In a recent TechKnowledge column inspired by the case, “Voter ID: A Tempest in a Teapot that Could Burn Us All,” I wrote:

A national registration system for voting would quickly be repurposed and used for many other kinds of regulatory control. There is no shortage of proposals for national registration and control of citizens. Should the voter ID tempest in a teapot boil over, the tiny specter of voter fraud could thrust a mandatory national ID into the hands of law-abiding citizens.

The Constitution gives Congress power to regulate the elections that select its members and, to a lesser degree, the president. But Congress does not have to use that power to its fullest extent. States recognize their own interests in fair elections, and they should experiment among themselves with ways to secure elections while making sure the vote is available to all qualified people.

Howley on E-Verify

Kerry Howley has a great article on the supposedly common-sense proposal to create a massive federal database of eligible workers as a disincentive to illegal immigration:

While undocumented workers probably contribute more in federal taxes than they consume in federal services, no one doubts that they pose some fiscal burden to border communities where they arrive. Still, you’d have to take an improbably extreme view of these costs to deem the SAVE Act fiscally rational. According to the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), the act would decrease federal revenues by $17.3 billion between 2009 and 2018 as formerly tax-paying workers go underground. The costs of expanding E-verify and a bunch of other goodies stuffed into SAVE (thousands more border agents, a program to recruit former members of the armed forces to join the border patrol, more SUVs and unmanned aerial vehicles, hundreds of full time immigration investigators, expanded immigration detention centers) come to $23.4 billion in discretionary spending during the same period. And that doesn’t touch the cost to individual employers, who are being slapped with a huge regulatory burden in the midst of impending recession.

No presidential candidate has come out in favor of Schuler’s bill, most likely because the bill includes no avenue for undocumented workers who wish to become legal. Herein lies the ambitious stupidity of SAVE: If the bill works as intended, it will instantly turn the population of 12 million undocumented workers with no way of becoming legal into 12 million unemployed undocumented workers with no way of becoming legal. For a political constituency constantly worried about “anarchy,” this does not appear to be an ideal situation.

The SAVE Act may or may not come to a vote this session, but employment verification will almost certainly be a part of future compromise legislation on immigration reform. That’s worrying. Walls offend us aesthetically and symbolically; they’re clumsy and primitive and cruel. But they’re also easy to tear down; far easier than a slowly metastasizing system of total employment surveillance, of growing databases and expanding bureaucracies.

Our own Jim Harper has justifiably called the e-verify program Franz Kafka’s solution to illegal immigration. According to the Social Security Administration’s own estimates, almost 18 million Social Security records contain errors, many of them pertaining to US citizens. If even a small fraction of those problems find their way into the e-verify program, we’d be looking at millions of American citizens suddenly forced to “prove” to federal bureaucrats that they’re “eligible” to have a job. Giving the federal government the power to decide which US citizens are allowed to work for a living seems to me like a much bigger threat to our freedoms than anything illegal immigrants have done.

NCSL Calls for Repeal of REAL ID

The National Conference of State Legislatures wants the REAL ID Act gone. It supports S. 717, the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007, which would repeal the REAL ID Act and reinstitute a negotiated rulemaking process on identity security that was established in the 9/11-Commission-inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that an organization like this would reject a behemoth of a project like building a national ID and surveillance system. The NCSL isn’t a small-government organization, and it could just as well have lobbied for billions of dollars in funding.

Microsoft Volunteers to Be the Poster Child for DMCA Reform

One of the big challenges of writing about tech policy is the difficulty of explaining the subjects I write about for a general audience. This was a particular challenge a couple of years ago when I wrote a Cato Policy Analysis about the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—just typing that out is a chore. I wish I could have pointed to this story as an example, because it brilliantly illustrates my argument.

A few years back, Microsoft developed a copy-protection scheme called PlaysForSure (it will become clear shortly how ironic that name was) that was supposed to prevent music customers from engaging in Internet piracy with music they bought from online music stores. Microsoft licensed the format to a variety of different companies and aggressively promoted it as an alternative to Apple’s iTunes-iPod ecosystem. Unfortunately, Microsoft failed to close the gap with Apple, so in 2006 Microsoft unveiled a new product line called Zune, effectively discontinuing development of PlaysForSure. Zunes are incompatible with PlaysForSure music. If you built up a music library in the PlaysForSure format, it would, um, not play for sure (or at all) on a Zune music player.

Up to this point this is just an ordinary business story, and nothing for libertarians to be concerned about. Companies drop old product lines all the time, and sometimes that means customers are stuck with compatibility headaches. But there’s just one problem: not only will Microsoft not help you play your PlaysForSure music on a Zune, but it’s illegal under the DMCA for anyone else to develop software to convert PlaysForSure music to a format that could play on Zunes, iPods, or any other format. Such software would be considered a “circumvention device”—ostensibly a piracy tool—and could bring civil and criminal penalties. If you were stupid enough to buy music in PlaysForSure format, you’re stuck with the dwindling number of PlaysForSure-compatible music programs still left on the market. You can burn your music to CDs, and then re-rip them to an open format, but this is a time-consuming process if you have a large music library, and it will lead to some degradation in the quality of the music.

As if all that weren’t enough, Microsoft yesterday announced the next step in its campaign to make the DMCA look ridiculous: this fall, it will be switching off the license servers that allow customers to “authorize” new computers and operating systems to play music from customers that bought music from its now-defunct MSN Music store. This means that if you have a library of music from the MSN Music store, and you buy a new computer or upgrade your operating system, there will be no legal way to take your music library with you.

If Congress hadn’t enacted the DMCA, this wouldn’t be a big deal. Third parties could develop software utilities that would automatically convert peoples’ PlaysForSure-formatted music collections into an open format like MP3, which would allow it be played on almost any computer or music player. Customers wouldn’t have to worry about whether their computer had been “authorized,” or whether the company they’d purchased the music from was running the necessary “license server.”

The most frustrating thing about this is that forcing consumers to jump through these hoops hasn’t made a dent in illicit file sharing. To this day, the music industry sells most of its music in the copy-protection-free CD format. Anyone can buy a CD, rip it to MP3 format, and upload it to the Internet. And music downloaded from peer-to-peer networks comes free of copy protection. Which means that the hassles imposed on consumers by the DMCA and copy protection formats like PlaysForSure haven’t slowed down piracy at all. All they’ve done is created unnecessary headaches for customers who were foolish enough to obey the law and pay for the music they downloaded.

Cracking Down - on Legal Permanent Residents

Prepare for more of this if electronic employment eligibility verification goes national. Reports Dianne Solís of the Dallas Morning News:

Federal immigration agents executing arrest warrants for workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Mount Pleasant arrested the wrong Jesus García at his home near the plant – despite his repeated assurances that he was a legal permanent resident.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents targeted workers at Pilgrim’s plants in Texas and four other states, and by Thursday, had arrested 311 workers on identity fraud charges or immigration violations.

“We think it is a case of mistaken identity,” said Fernando Dubove, Mr. García’s attorney. “It is the wrong Jesus García. It is really tough when you have a common name.”

This is probably just coincidence, but were an electronic employment eligibility verification system in place, illegal immigrants would affirmatively pursue this as a strategy, deepening the simple identity frauds they commit now to get ‘legal’ employment. They would acquire proof of identification as good or better than the true holder of a given identity.

In my recent paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” I discussed what would happen when mistaken identity/identity fraud situations arose in the EEV systems now being debated on Capitol Hill:

[L]aw-abiding citizens would regularly stand accused of identity fraud. The SSA and DHS would not know which user of a name-SSN pair was the genuine person and which was using a false identity. EEV would tentatively nonconfirm all users of that name-SSN pair. The “true” individuals attached to fraudulently used identities would learn of identity fraud in their names when they were refused work by EEV and plunged into a bureaucratic morass.

Luckily, these victims of the system would just be denied employment and not arrested - if that’s your idea of luck …