Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

REAL ID Deadline Passes - Zero Compliance

Yesterday - Sunday, May 11, 2008 - was the statutory deadline for state compliance with the REAL ID Act. Not a single state has begun issuing nationally standardized IDs as called for by the law. Nor are they putting driver information into nationally accessible databases.

Matthew Blake of the Washington Independent has a solid recap of the situation.

Cracking Down on Legal Permanent Residents, Pt. II

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a legal permanent resident who was arrested because he shared a common name with a suspected illegal immigrant. It illustrated how the E-Verify program would foul things for legal workers, a prominent subject of this paper.

Here’s another story of legal permanent resident mistreatment. This illustrates how overblown terror fears can cloud officials’ judgments and foul things for … well, everyone.

It seems that a woman in Florida asked her relatives in Monterrey, Mexico to ship her the birth certificates of two relatives who want to apply for their Mexican passports at the consulate in South Miami. At the behest of U.S. Customs and Border Security, the envelope is being held by the United Parcel Service in Louisville, Kentucky until she identifies herself further.

Asked to explain, a CBP spokeswoman in Washington asserted the U.S. government’s right to examine everything entering or exiting the country and said, “Identity documents are of concern to CBP because of their potential use by terrorists.”

This is a terrific example of poorly generated suspicion. In our paper on predictive data mining, Jeff Jonas and I wrote about how suspicion is properly generated in the absence of specific leads: “[T]here must be a pattern that fits terrorism planning … and the actions of investigated persons must fit that pattern while not fitting any common pattern of lawful behavior.”

False identities and forged documents have been used by terrorists, but with little purpose or effect. There just isn’t a proximate relationship between false identification and successful attacks. But obviously some terrorists have believed that they need false or fraudulently-gotten IDs. So there is a weak but plausible relationship between shipping identity documents and terrorism planning.

But that doesn’t end the inquiry. We have to ask a second question: Does shipping identity documents fit any common pattern of lawful behavior? Yes it does, such as the example here: legal permanent residents seeking to apply for home-country passports at consulates in the U.S. There are probably dozens of other reasons for shipping identity documents as well. CBP’s suspicion of this woman and her documents is not well founded.

One is reminded of the cases where photographers have been harassed or arrested for photographing buildings and monuments. Yes, photography of big things is potentially consistent with terrorism planning! Oh, but it’s also consistent with having an interest in architecture, having an interest in photography, taking a vacation, working as a photographer for a newspaper, and so on, and so on …

This woman should get her documents without further delay.

ACTE Endorses REAL ID Repeal

Joining the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives has endorsed S. 717, the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007. This bill would reinstitute a negotiated rulemaking process regarding identity security that was established in the 9/11-Commission-inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

XM-Sirius Rent-Seeking

The FCC’s review of the XM-Sirius merger is a perfect example of the type of quagmire that’s inevitably created when a government agency is given broad, discretionary authority over private businesses. Various special interest groups have proposed that the merger be subjected to a laundry list of requirements. Lefty groups want an open device mandate. A rent-seeker entrepreneur named Chester C. Davenport wants the merged entity to set aside 20 percent of its spectrum for minority-controlled broadcasting. There are a variety of other proposals to require the firm to lease spectrum to unaffiliated entities. Clear Channel is demanding that it be subjected to the same “indecency” regulations that now plague terrestrial radio.

There are good arguments against each of these proposals, and there are some plausible arguments for some of them as well. But what I find most problematic about the situation is the way the proposals are handled. We have a constitutional system of government in which Congress is supposedly in charge of writing laws, the executive branch is in charge of executing them, and the courts are in charge of interpreting them. This ensures that laws are written by the most politically-engaged branch—Congress—and interpreted by the most impartial branch—the courts.

But in this case, as in many others, Congress has effectively given the FCC its blessing to wear all three hats. It can dream up new “conditions” (read: regulations) for the merger focusing on virtually any subject that strikes its fancy. The conditions are specific to one company, so there’s ample scope for favoritism and arbitrary decision-making. And once the conditions have been announced, and XM-Sirius have been blackmailed into “accepting” them, the FCC effectively wears executive and judicial hats as well. Yes, supplicants before the FCC can and do appeal decisions to federal courts, and the FCC is sometimes overruled. But the courts tend to give the FCC relatively wide deference in its policy decisions, and firms that practice regularly before the FCC may be reluctant to too aggressively defend their prerogatives in the courts for fear of souring their relationship with the FCC going forward.

The fundamental problem (aside from the courts’ failure to require that lawmaking powers be limited to Congress as required by the Constitution) is the FCC’s baroque process for apportioning spectrum. The right way to handle it would be for XM, Sirius, and every other broadcaster to have a property right in the spectrum they use, which would entitle them to do as they please with that spectrum (as long as it didn’t interfere with other broadcasters) or to lease or sell the spectrum to anyone else. In a world with genuine property rights, spectrum would find its way to owner with the highest-valued use, and anyone who wanted to enter a market like satellite radio would be able to do so simply be purchasing spectrum rights in the appropriate bands. The FCC’s role would be limited to keeping track of who held which license and verifying that spectrum uses did not create interference with one another.

My suspicion is that in such a world, satellite radio would prove economically infeasible because the spectrum would be more valuable in other uses. But I don’t know, and the FCC’s soviet-style spectrum allocation process is certainly not a good way to figure it out. The FCC should approve the XM-Sirius merger without conditions. But the more important lesson is that, Congress should be moving toward genuine property rights in spectrum, so that the 21st-century wireless market ceases to be micro-managed by an anachronistic 20th-century bureaucracy.

Once we have a real market for spectrum, Congress may choose to enact general regulations governing the use of that spectrum. But the current system, in which the FCC has the arbitrary power to single out individual companies for arbitrary restrictions on virtually any subject the FCC’s commissioners happen to be concerned with, is deeply flawed. It’s not fair to companies that have the misfortune of attracting the FCC’s scrutiny, and it’s not good for consumers, who are deprived of the benefits of a robust and competitive market for spectrum.

Upcoming Event: See South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford Make Sense of the REAL ID Act

Last week, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (R) vetoed a transportation bill that included a provision objecting to the federal REAL ID Act. The bill would have required the federal government to pay 95 percent of the cost of issuing national IDs before Minnesota would participate. Claiming political machinations were afoot, Pawlenty said that he preferred “something more reasonable like 50 or 60 percent.” One wonders what principle of federalism, liberty, or privacy could possibly support his willingness to accept a 50% unfunded surveillance mandate.

A much clearer vision will be on display next week when Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) joins Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) here at the Cato Institute to discuss the REAL ID Act. South Carolina has barred itself from participating in the national ID system created by the Act, and Governor Sanford defiantly refused to ask the Department of Homeland Security for an extension of the compliance deadline earlier this year.

Senator Tester represents a state that has been similarly defiant. He is an original cosponsor of legislation that would repeal the REAL ID Act and restore the identification security provisions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Protection Act, which REAL ID repealed.

The event is called The REAL ID Rebellion: Whither the National ID Law?, next Wednesday, May 7th, at noon, and it will be Webcast.

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.