As the Senate amends S 744, the immigration reform bill, we suggest paying particular attention to the language around identification. The bill’s lack of clarity around identity and document verification has already created at least one red herring, recent claims that E-Verify’s photo tool is a precursor to a national biometric database. E-Verify is not a database but rather a method of querying numerous databases managed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the State Department, and federal and state government agencies. And the photo tool has nothing to do with biometrics. Yet, without a reliable method to authenticate citizenship credentials or immigration benefits, Congress and taxpayers cannot reasonably expect the U.S. government to be able to enforce its own immigration laws.
Today’s Document Verification for Employers
E-Verify is a tool to query decentralized databases for the purpose of document verification. These databases include the Department of State, the Social Security Administration and Motor Vehicle departments. The photo tool is designed to allow an employer to compare the data and picture from the database of record (e.g., passports, driver’s licenses, visas) with the data and picture on the presented credential. If they match, the document is genuine.
Unfortunately, S 744 does not address the more fundamental problem of identity in the current employment-verification process. There is a difference between document verification and identity authentication. Document verification determines whether a document is genuine. Identity authentication determines whether the person presenting the document is the individual to whom it refers.
The Real Concern: Identity Authentication
Identity authentication is the hard part. The bill continues to require employers to compare a picture that may have been taken five years ago with the face of the individual in front of them. Since 1986, the I-9 employment verification process has depended precisely on this human-identification activity. If the expectation of accurate and consistently reliable photo-to-face matching was reasonable, would the U.S. have such a large population of unauthorized residents?
Unless and until this weak identification process is improved, the intent of employment verification legislation to prevent unauthorized noncitizens from working in the U.S. will not be met. Although S 744 makes E-Verify mandatory, it does not change a process easily subverted by identity fraud.
Recent claims raise the specter of a national biometric database. The real challenge is how to raise the level of confidence in identity and authentication without creating a national ID. The claim, albeit erroneous, that S 744 creates a national biometric database in E-Verify, raises legitimate privacy and liberty concerns.
Protecting Identities and Privacy Without a National Database or ID
What is needed is an identity solution that allows individuals to create and reuse trusted identities in a wide array of contexts, and to ensure that they are the only ones who can authenticate and claim these identities. The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace has called for the development of private sector identity service solutions. The premise is that the individual, rather than the government or commercial-relying party, creates, owns and manages his or her identity using an identity service provider of his or her choice. The model is properly antithetical to a national ID. Instead, it enhances individual privacy.
A next step could be for the Department of Homeland Security to work with USCIS to connect a voluntary identity service pilot with E-Verify. Based on a trusted identity service model using personal mobile devices and available mobile biometric applications, E-Verify transactions can be made between employees and the USCIS directly, and they include electronic credentials that individuals can share with employers and biometrically authenticate.
The Senate should consider directing DHS to create an identity service pilot that uses biometrics to support all immigration benefit programs in S 744, including E-Verify, thereby ensuring integrity, privacy and convenience in the employment-verification process.
Patrick Schambach was founding associate undersecretary for information technology and chief information officer for the Transportation Security Administration. He is now VP/GM of Homeland Security and Law Enforcement for Computer Sciences Corp.’s North American Public Sector. Lora Ries served as a Department of Homeland Security executive and is now senior principal for directing immigration reform strategy for CSC’s North American Public Sector and its Border and Immigration Solutions Center of Excellence.