Biometric requirement could make E-Verify worth billions

Industry closely watching Schumer bill that would require biometric data

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) enthusiastically supports adding a biometric identifier to the federal E-Verify employment eligibility verification system, which is setting the stage for potentially one of the largest federal biometric opportunities.

His newly proposed biometric identification program could be huge, potentially encompassing the entire U.S. workforce of 140 million employees. Naturally the biometrics industry is paying attention. Contractors are excited, but they also are tamping down their expectations while trying to sort through the political and social implications of the potential multibillion-dollar identity plan.

“Obviously, it will be a big boost for the industry,” said David Coleman, senior consultant at International Biometric Group consulting firm.

“This is clearly a big opportunity — one of the biggest in the United States,” said Neville Pattinson, vice president of government affairs and business development at Gemalto North America.

Real ID Repeat?

At the same time, industry executives are weighing concerns about privacy, effectiveness and costs and wondering whether E-Verify biometrics can succeed even though other identification programs have failed.

“There was a lot of buzz about Real ID, and it kind of petered out,” Coleman said.

Real ID, which Congress passed to strengthen driver’s license security in 2005, met strong opposition from many state governors, and the program might be superseded by new legislation this year.

Some of the same concerns that derailed Real ID also pertain to the proposal to add biometrics to E-Verify: high costs, privacy and identity theft risks, and potential ineffectiveness and unpopularity. The American Civil Liberties Union cites a faltering biometric identity card plan in the United Kingdom as an example of the pitfalls ahead.

In addition, a mandatory nationwide electronic employment verification system would be one of the largest and most widely accessible databases ever created in the United States. Its size and openness “would be an irresistible target for identity theft and almost inevitably lead to major data breaches,” Michael Macleod-Ball, interim director of the ACLU’s Washington, D.C., office, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in writing July 20.

Even so, supporters assert that the need to clamp down on illegal immigrant employment and Schumer’s strong endorsement are creating ripe conditions for the program.

“I’d give it a moderately high chance of passage," Pattinson said. "A perfect storm is happening.”

E-Verify operated quietly for more than a decade as a voluntary program before former President George W. Bush elevated it to a high priority. It now is mandatory to some degree in 12 states. Bush also issued an executive order to make E-Verify mandatory for federal contractors, but the Obama administration has postponed enforcement until Sept. 8 because of a pending lawsuit.

With E-Verify, a Web-based system managed jointly by the Homeland Security Department and the Social Security Administration, employers submit prospective employees’ Social Security Numbers. If there is a match between name and number, the job candidate can go to work. If there is no match, alternative procedures are in place for further adjudication.

But E-Verify has been controversial because of alleged high error rates. Mike Aytes, acting deputy director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, told a July 21 Senate hearing that the initial no-match rate is 3.1 percent. However, industry surveys have reported rates as high as 13 percent.

Schumer's support critical

Also at that hearing, Schumer and other witnesses testified that E-Verify cannot detect identity theft and fraud, and it can be fooled by individuals who submit stolen Social Security numbers.

Nevertheless, E-Verify is gaining a higher profile thanks to Schumer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship Subcommittee. He also is expected to be a central player in upcoming immigration reform legislation.

During at least two news conferences, Schumer has called for E-Verify to add biometrics.

“Only by creating a biometric-based federal employment verification system will both employers and employees have the peace of mind that all employment relationships are both lawful and proper,” he said June 24.

However, Schumer has not yet released a detailed proposal, and his office did not respond to a request for more information.

Industry sources say individuals would need to register their fingerprints with a government agency. The encrypted digital fingerprints would be stored on a database or possibly on a microchip embedded on a card or token. Employers would scan job applicants' fingerprints and verify them against the database, card or token.

Industry executives say the program's cost would likely range from $1 billion to $4 billion or possibly higher, surpassing the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, which has collected about 90 million fingerprints from foreign visitors at a cost of about $3 billion so far.

E-Verify “would dwarf US-VISIT and the FBI’s database,” said Walter Hamilton, chairman of the International Biometric Industry Association. “This would be on a massive scale.”

U.S. taxpayers would not shoulder as much of the cost if employers and workers are required to pay fees to enroll and verify their fingerprints. One proposal is to add a digital fingerprint to the Social Security card, which would then be used for E-Verify.

“That would kill two birds with one stone,” Hamilton said.

But Gemalto’s Pattinson said it would be more effective to put the encrypted fingerprint on a card or token that could be checked against a finger scan at field locations rather than pinging a central database whenever verification is needed.

“You can bring your credentials with you,” he said.

However, an initial, full central-database check would be required to protect against duplicate enrollments, he added.

A question of how

Another point under discussion is whether the enrolling entity would do mandatory checks with state and local agencies to verify the authenticity of documents offered as proof of identity, such as birth certificates.

Under Real ID, the states bore a large portion of the costs to set up systems to check one another’s databases to ensure that drivers did not have multiple licenses or use multiple identities.

Will E-Verify be required to do the same to rule out multiple birth certificates at the front end? And if it does not, could someone succeed in stealing an identity beforehand and then register his or her fingerprints using that fraudulent identity?

In short, those are risks. “It is very difficult to prevent identity theft; we are not starting out with good documents,” Pattinson said.

“The program will only be as good as the vetting,” he added. "If there is a problem, there will have to be procedures to correct it.”

Moreover, Pattinson said he could envision a race to enroll fingerprints because the first person to claim an identity might have an advantage.

The prospect of using fingerprints for job eligibility also is likely to be unpopular and an invasion of privacy, said Jena McNeil, homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

“E-Verify is pretty sufficient right now in terms of what we need to know if they are legally able to work," McNeil said. "Once you go into the biometric realm, it opens the door to privacy issues we wouldn’t be comfortable with."

Even so, E-Verify biometrics is on everyone’s radar at the moment. “This is a tremendous opportunity,” said Hamilton, of the biometrics association. “Our industry is taking a lot of notice of this. We know there will be some controversy along with opportunity.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Reader Comments

Tue, Aug 11, 2009

This sounds to me like just a slick way to "force" people to "volunteer their fingerprints AND a huge opportunity to have the process screwed up by yet another government "benefit". Big Brother is watching, recording, compiling, and data warehousing us all. The old line of "If you aren't doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear seems a little out of place here. I fear having some government clerk fat finger me into being un-employable because now they think I am an illegal alien named Manual Labor. Your tax dollars at play. Doctor Digital

Fri, Aug 7, 2009 Buzzm1 SF Bay Area

Biometrics for E-Verify is an unneeded exoribitant expense at this point in time. E-Verify works great at its intened purpose; to identify illegals.

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