Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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6/26/2007
06:45 PM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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National ID Cards The 'Sleeper' Immigration Issue?

A largely overlooked section in the comprehensive immigration reform being debated in the Senate calls for the Social Security Administration to come up with fraud-resistant cards within two years to aid in electronic worker verification, possibly including biometric information. One top immigration scholar says this could be the "sleeper" issue of the debate, since it affects every U.S. employee.

A largely overlooked section in the comprehensive immigration reform being debated in the Senate calls for the Social Security Administration to come up with fraud-resistant cards within two years to aid in electronic worker verification, possibly including biometric information. One top immigration scholar says this could be the "sleeper" issue of the debate, since it affects every U.S. employee.The immigration bill got new life with a Senate vote Tuesday. One provision in the package of bills calls for the Department of Homeland Security to set up an electronic verification system to replace today's paper-based system, in which employers must accept documents workers present if they appear genuine. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University law professor and lawyer specializing in immigration law, says in an interview that the proposed electronic verification system is a "big issue that hasn't gotten a lot of attention."

In a New York Law Journal column (subscription required) that Yale-Loehr co-authored with Ted J. Chiappari summarizing the current proposal, they write:

"The proposed [electronic verification system] could be the sleeper issue in the immigration reform debate, since it would affect all American workers, not just noncitizens. For example, the bill would require the Social Security Administration (SSA) to issue fraud-resistant Social Security cards within two years after enactment. The bill also requires the SSA to consider adding biometric information to Social Security cards. This could effectively make Social Security cards a national ID card."

That assumes such a system could be built. The San Francisco Chronicle has a good piece on how incredibly difficult such an electronic verification system would be to build and keep secure. Here's one cut:

"Speaking for the Association for Computing Machinery, a scientific and educational group, [Peter Neumann, principal scientist at the Computer Science Laboratory] said lawmakers frequently have outsized expectations of technological fixes for social problems."

Very true. Given how sensitive consumers wary of identify theft are getting about their Social Security numbers, it seems unlikely that this system, even if it's enacted, would evolve into the kind of "national ID card" that privacy advocates fear. More worrisome are the practical concerns. There are reasons to doubt that the feds could pull off such a complicated and security-sensitive system at all; there's no reason to believe it could happen in two years from enactment of such a law. Hopefully something more realistic emerges from the coming renewed debate.

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