National Identification System


Mr. Chairman, my name is Stephen Moore and I am an economist atthe Cato Institute. In keeping with the new truth in testimonyrules, let me first say that the Cato Institute does not receive asingle penny of government funds.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment today on the idea of"improving the integrity of the Social Security card by making itas secure as the 100 dollar bill." I am as opposed as I possiblycould be to any measure that would move toward the establishment ofa national i.d card in America. Make no mistake about it: H.R. 231would do exactly that. I am aware that supporters of this ideaargue vehemently that making the Social Security card fraud-proofis not the same as establishing a national i.d. card. In fact,there is a section in Mr. McCollum's bill H.R. 231 entitled "NOT ANATIONAL IDENTIFICATION CARD."

Mr. Chairman there is a popular saying these days in politicsthat applies directly to this bill:

If it looks like a duck.

If it quacks like a duck.

If it walks like a duck.

It's a duck.

Supporters of a new tamper-proof Social Security card maintainthat it is different from a national i.d. card in that no one wouldbe required to carry the card around with them. Such assurancesring hollow given the recent history of immigration enforcement.With each passing law, privacy rights have been subjugated in thename of policing our borders. Twelve years ago when Congressenacted the employer sanctions laws, I and other critics, testifiedin this very room that the ill-conceived notion of making employersthe de facto deputized agents of the INS, would lead todiscrimination against foreign-looking and sounding U.S. citizensand authorized workers. We also argued that employer sanctions werethe first step toward a national i.d. card system.

Members of this committee assured us that those predictionswould never come to pass. They also pledged that if employersanctions were proven to encouragediscrimination against latinos or Asians then the law would berepealed. In 1990 the U.S. General Accounting Office documented a"serious pattern of discrimination" resulting from the employersanctions law. Despite the evidence, the law has never beenrepealed.

Members of this Committee also denounced the suggestion thatemployer sanctions would ever lead to the establishment of anational i.d. card system or the implementation of any othertechnologies that would compromise the privacy rights of Americancitizens.

And yet here we are twelve years later debating this very issue.It is noteworthy that last year Congress adopted a "pilot project"for an insidious national computer registry system with the federalgovernment centralizing work authorization data on every one of the120 million Americans in the workforce. This system has becomedisparagingly known as: 1-800-BIG-BROTHER.

Surely, no one on this committee would deny that efforts toreduce illegal immigration have led to ever more draconian measuresto keep out unauthorized workers. Consider the inglorious legacy ofemployer sanctions. They have failed in every way. Rep. McCollumconceded himself that "the employer sanctions law is not working."It is worse than that; the law has done harm to many Americancitizens--particularly minorities. But rather than repeal a lawthat does not work, Congress continuously adopts more and morestringent steps to make it work.

Last year the computer registry system was adopted on a pilotproject basis. It is almost a certainty that no matter how big afailure this new system proves to be, within ten years the registrywill be applied to all workers and employers in the nation. I haveworked in Washington for fifteen years mainly covering the federalbudget, and I have never encountered a government program thatdidn't work--no matter how overwhelming the evidence to thecontrary.

The centralized computer registry system is dangerous enough.But to add to that a photo i.d. card issued to every citizen thatmatches up with the computer data base is to put in place theentire infrastructure of a national i.d. card system. All that ismissing is the nomenclature. As someone once put it: this is asabout as ill-fated as giving a teenager a bottle a booze and keysto a motorcycle, but getting him to promise that he won't drink anddrive. You're just asking for trouble.

Nearly all congressional supporters of the new Social Securitycard system say they are against a national i.d. card. The best wayto protect against the establishment of a de jure national i.d.document system is to abandon the idea of converting the SocialSecurity card into a de facto i.d. card.

The Social Security card was never meant to be used foridentification purposes. When the system was created in 1935, toassuage the concerns of American citizens, Congress insisted thatthe card would never and should never be used for purposes ofidentification. Its sole purpose was to ensure that workers werepaying the required payroll tax. Individual workers were assignednumbers so that the proper governing authority could easily accountfor the contributions made to the Social Security fund.Nonetheless, the use of the number grew steadily over the years.Starting in 1961, the Civil Service Commission began using thenumber to identify all federal employees. In 1962, the IRS startedrequiring the number to appear on all completed tax returns.

We have seen on many occasions over the past sixty years abusesof the Social Security system that were never envisioned when thesystem was created--just as abuses of the proposed i.d. card thatwe cannot now envision would almost certainly occur when expediencytakes precedence over safeguards of privacy rights and civilliberties. In fact, privacy rights have already been eroded. TheSSA disclosed Social Security numbers to the private sector untilpublic outrage halted the activity in 1989. The disclosuresaffected more than three million Americans.

Earlier this year the Social Security Administration launched aweb site, which allowed computer hackers internet access toindividuals' payroll and benefit records. All a snoop needed accessto was an individual's name, Social Security number, date and placeof birth, and mother's maiden name. As Senator Grassley noted in aletter to SSA requiring the web site to be suspended, the systemwas ripe for abuse "by everyone from nosy neighbors, to legal foes,to ex-spouses seeking financial support." The SSA's track record inprotecting privacy does not inspire confidence that privacy rightswould be properly protected under the i.d. card system.

The Social Security number is by no means alone in this regard.Various programs which authorize the government to collect personalinformation about American citizens have gone so awry over theyears that we ought to be reeling in the information that thegovernment collects from us, not expanding its powers in thisregard. Here are some historical and recent examples of abuse:

* The confidentiality of Census Bureau information was violatedin World War II to help move Japanese-Americans to internmentcamps.

* The FBI criminal history records system, which was designedfor law enforcement purposes, is now used predominantly by non-lawenforcement agencies and private employers.

* The State of Ohio recently sold its drivers' license and carregistration lists to TRW, Inc. for $375,000. In a recenteditorial, Business Week asked: "Who gavegovernment agencies the right to cash in on information that peopleare forced to give them in the first place?"

* In early 1995 more than 500 Internal Revenue Service agentswere caught illegally snooping into the tax records of thousands ofAmericans -- often friends and celebrities. Only five of theseemployees were fired for this invasion of privacy.

* The IRS claimed that its new privacy protection measures wouldprotect against this from happening again. But it did happen againin early 1997 with hundreds of IRS agents again illegallyinvestigating the tax information of friends, foes, andcelebrities.

Technology has played a vital role in advancing freedom aroundthe world, especially in Eastern Europe and the former SovietUnion. But it has also laid new temptations at the doorstep ofgovernment, suddenly afforded ways to micromanage people's lives.Once the technology and database is in place for a national workerregistry, new and at times urgent alternative purposes for theregistry will doubtless arise. Those who favor big government willfind many uses for a centralized computer database every time a new"national crisis" emerges: to help fight the war on drugs, tocontrol the spread of disease, to combat terrorism, and so forth.Here are a few examples of policy ideas that have already beenpromoted in Washington for which a national i.d. card and acomputer registry system could be put to use:

• Nationalized health care. President Clinton's health careplan included a "Health Security Card" for all Americans. If theidea comes back, the Social Security card could be used also as aHealth Security card. The card could contain information aboutgenetic testing, sexual orientation, drug use, sexually transmitteddiseases, and more.

• Welfare payments. Vice President Gore has promoted a"reinventing government" initiative that would send entitlementmonies to recipients via an ATM and Maryland has alreadyexperimented with the practice. Why not make the Social Securitycard capable of handling this function so that we can createone-stop shopping.

• Criminal records. Many people will think that theinformation on a card and in a worker registry could be combinedwith criminal records to make sure former felons do not get bondedin the banking industry or that convicted rapists do not becomeschool teachers. The system could possibly perform backgroundchecks for gun purchases. The City of Pasadena already requires anidentification to purchase ammunition.

In the age of the microchip, centralized computers have thecapability of holding and processing huge amounts of informationabout all 265 million American citizens. An optically readable i.d.card recently patented by Drexler Technology Corporation inCalifornia can hold a picture i.d. and 1,600 pages of text. Thegovernment could mass produce these cards at a cost of less than$5.00 per person. Even more sophisticated identification systemsmight remove the need for carrying a card at all.

Hughes Aircraft Company has a new identification technologyinvolving a syringe implantable transponder. This "ingenious, safe,and inexpensive" worker identification technology plants a tinymicrochip under the skin. It contains a ten character alphanumericidentification code that can never be duplicated. The microchip isread by an electronic scanner--the type that reads the price on thefood you buy at the grocery store.

The point here is that depending on how far Congress wants to goin suppressing the rights of the individual in order to deterillegal immigration, the technology exists for a fool-proof ifOrwellian identification system. If Congress were willing tofurther denigrate Americans' civil liberties, many new governmentcontrols to enforce our immigration laws could be erected.

Indeed, I would ask supporters of the new Social Security card:What exactly is your objection to a national i.d. card? Ifcombating illegal immigration is such a national emergency, thenwhy not require the card be carried around at all times? Why notrequire a biometric identifier that is much harder to forge? Whynot place a micro-chip on the card? All of these steps would nodoubt help with the enforcement of immigration laws. My fear isthat some of the more zealous anti-immigrant groups might respondprivately: one step at a time.

Members of this Committee may complain that I am engaging inscare tactics--that no one would suggest such measures. But in factmembers of Congress have suggested these ideas in the past andcontinue to do so. Senator

Dianne Feinstein of California has suggested an identificationcard with "a magnetic strip on which the bearer's unique voice,retina pattern, or fingerprint is digitally encoded." These wereher words, not mine.

Senator Simpson, who just retired, has consistently argued thatfor employer sanctions to work effectively, an I.D. card isnecessary. In the 1990 Immigration Act Senator Simpson sought anexperimental card with a biometric component, such as afingerprint, and a social security number. In Congressionalhearings two years ago Senator Simpson and other members ofCongress spoke openly and longingly about the virtues of "an i.d.card system."

Sen. Simpson's original immigration bill last year included aprovision that would have forced states to issue a standardizedbirth certificate that would have included an individual's SocialSecurity number and, by the age of 16, a biometric indicator. Thiswould allegedly reduce the document fraud that currently plaguesthe enforcement of employer sanctions, but would also have thefederal government regulating state records to an unprecedenteddegree. This builds upon a Jordan Commission recommendation, but,like the Commission, it offers no cost estimate of what it wouldtake to regulate the 7,000 vital statistics offices across thecountry that currently issue birth certificates.

The main argument, then against this very dangerous idea is thatit is an affront to out basic privacy rights and civil liberties asAmerican citizens. But there are other problems with the idea aswell:

1. Congress lacks the constitutionalauthority. At the Cato Institute we have been trying--inmost cases in vain--to discipline Congress to always ask thequestion when voting on a new government program: where is theauthority in the constitution to undertake this action. Nowhere inthe Constitution is the federal government conferred authority toestablish a computer registry, to compel citizens to obtain anational i.d. card, or to involve itself this intimately in theeveryday business decisions of employers.

2. It will encourage further workplacediscrimination. We don't have to imagine, for example, thatthis new card, would exacerbate discrimination against theforeign-born and also American-born citizens with foreign surnames.We don't have to imagine this because the laws already in place arecausing such discrimination with Congress showing scant concern.For example, under employer sanctions, the documents of Hispanicjob applicants have been found to be three times more likely to bechallenged than those of whites. Hispanics and Asians are much morelikely to be harassed by local law enforcement, employers, and theINS to produce their Social Security card.

3. It will not be forgery-proof. Nogovernment i.d. card is fraud-resistant for long--unless we movetoward a 1984-style system with computermicrochips, fingerprints, retina scans, and the like. Employersanctions and I-9 Forms have given rise to a cottage industry infake identification. There's no reason to believe that black marketentrepreneurs will abandon a lucrative business just because thefederal government thinks it's getting clever. Phony workerdocuments are available for as little as $30 today in cities withhigh immigrant populations. The best a worker registry can hope toaccomplish is to push up these costs temporarily as forgers updatetheir techniques.

An i.d. card is not like a 100 dollar bill. Money is put intocirculation. It flows through banks where specialists have theexpertise and equipment to detect counterfeits. But millions ofemployers, who will be the guardians of this system, do not havesuch expertise, nor should they be required to.

4. It will not deter illegalimmigration. As the experience with employer sanctions hasshown, honest employers who simply want to play by the rules andrun their businesses will face a hefty new burden imposed on themby Washington. Those who want to skirt the law will pay workerscash or accept forged documents. Says a director of the AmalgamatedClothing and Textile Workers Union in New York: "If a guy running asewing loft or a laundry or a restaurant needs to cut labor costs,he knows he can hire a few illegal workers, pay them less than theminimum wage, and get away with it." For those employers, sanctionshave been an irrelevance. The first felony indictment under theemployer sanctions law did not come down until August, 1994 --eight years after employer sanctions were first adopted. The jobmagnet that attracts illegal immigrants will maintain its strongpull. The "Zoe Baird problem" is one of demand, not supply.

5. The costs exceed the "benefits."Despite the failure of employer sanctions, much of the hysteriaover illegal immigration is not confirmed by the officialstatistics on the size of the illegal alien population. The U.S.Census Bureau estimates that there are now an estimated four tofive million illegal aliens living in the United States today, andabout 300,000 more settle permanently each year. Four to fivemillion illegal immigrants is undeniably a large number of people,but it is far below the "invading army" of eight to ten millionaliens regularly reported in the media or by anti-immigrantlobbyists. Illegal aliens constitute only about 1.5 percent of the265 million people living in the United States. This level wouldnot seem to require draconian enforcement measures involving everysingle American worker and employer -- especially the majority ofAmericans who do not live in areas with a large number of illegalaliens.

Mr. Chairman, I wish to congratulate Rep. Melvin Watt for hiscourageous opposition to this bad idea. It saddens me to seeRepublicans, who took control of Congress in 1995 for the firsttime in forty years on an agenda of "less government, morefreedom," so enamored with an idea that so fundamentallycontradicts that platform. Ironically, many of the same Republicanswho belittled the Clinton administration for proposing a nationalhealth security card now want an even more insidious national i.d.card system with a centralized computer data base to controlillegal immigration. Indeed, some advocates of the i.d. card ideahave suggested that the card could and should be used for bothpurposes.

I wish to remind Republicans that this idea first surfaced in aReagan cabinet meeting in 1981. Then Attorney General WilliamFrench Smith argued that a perfectly harmless i.d. card systemwould be necessary to reduce illegal immigration. A second cabinetmember asked why not tattoo a number on each American's forearm.According to Martin Anderson, the White House domestic policyadviser at the time, Reagan blurted out: "My god, that's the markof the beast." Anderson reports "that was the end of the nationalidentification card" during the Reagan years. But bad ideas neverdie in Washington; they wait for another day.

It is also noteworthy that the leaders of virtually everylibertarian, conservative, and civil liberties organization inAmerica--from Bill Bennett at Empower America to Grover Norquist atAmericans for Tax Reform to Milton Friedman the Nobeleconomist--have denounced the both a national i.d card and thecomputer registry as "misguided and dangerous." (See appendix.)

Illegal immigration is the price we pay in America for being afree and prosperous nation. Indeed, these freedoms are why so manymillions of people from all over the world come here--both legallyand illegally. H.R. 231 asks Americans whether they are willing togive up some of those basic liberties in order to keep illegalimmigrants out. The answer to that question should be: never.Congress should be concentrating all its efforts on reclaiming lostrights of citizens, not further snatching away, one by one,existing ones.

Stephen Moore

Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
Committee on the Judiciary
United States House of Representatives