E-Verify National ID System Threatens Americans’ Privacy

“I’m not a criminal, so there’s really no reason for me to be in a criminal database.” That was James Shepherd, a Kentucky native and a roofer, after he was stopped by police under “suspicion of trespassing” at a Florida hotel. The officer on the scene asked to take his picture and ran it through Florida’s facial recognition database. Finding no matches, he uploaded Shepherd’s photo with the label “suspicious person.”

Florida is one of 26 states that use facial recognition software to verify identities of individuals who possess state ID photos or have their photos added by police, according a new report by The Washington Post. The Post report exposes how quickly systems created for one purpose can be coopted for other purposes. This should make those who support, in order to stop illegal immigration, the E-Verify national ID system contained in the Senate immigration bill consider what other applications authorities could find for the System.

E-Verify violates “a key principle of privacy”

 The Senate immigration bill would create a centralized database with photos of every legal U.S. worker or potential worker. It does this by combining the Social Security database – names, addresses and Social Security Numbers – with passport and state ID photos (p. 1317). The bill incentivizes states to provide photos by offering hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for making them accessible to the federal government (p. 1377).

This much alone violates what Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Newsletter, calls a “key principle of privacy.” As Smith explains, “The principle is that information gathered for one purpose ought not be used for an incompatible purpose without consent of the individual.” In this instance, Americans never conceived their Social Security accounts or driver license photos would be used for immigration enforcement, violating the premise under which they handed them over.

Federal law actually recognizes this principle under the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which strictly limits how states can use photos compiled under the auspices of motor vehicle regulation (18 USC § 2721). But this bill explicitly states the DPA doesn’t apply in this case.

Senate bill places no limits on E-Verify

Thus, the origin of the system itself demonstrates the weakness of supporters’ claims that it will be used only as employment verification for immigration purposes. Nonetheless, the bill contains two obligatory paragraphs to assuage fears of privacy advocates. One entitled “limitation on use” actually provides no limits on use (p. 1378). It merely prohibits using “this subsection” as justification for its expanded use into other areas.

E-Verify could be rolled out based on authority in thousands of other statutes. It could, for example, be used to prove identity to access federal benefits, bank accounts, gun purchases, health records and much else. The history of the Social Security number, which is now used in a broad range over areas unrelated to Social Security Insurance, elucidates how quickly federal identity systems can expand in their applications. The fact that E-Verify relies on the SSA database and SSNs makes this outcome even more likely.

The second “privacy” section entitled “no authorization of national identification cards” is just an anachronism – “cards” are irrelevant if the government can track movement and identity electronically. Indeed, a card only “identifies” someone who possesses it and allows it to be analyzed by someone else. But with the facial recognition capabilities E-Verify will create, no card need be demanded – a picture taken by an officer or from a red light camera, for example, could be compared to the E-Verify database to track someone’s movements without their knowledge, as is already being done –with federal funds – in many cities using license plates.

Also unlike a card, authorities can check identities remotely by requiring an online E-Verify check to access an activity. If officials need not be physically present to restrict access to activities, their capacity to monitor such behavior increases dramatically. Remote regulation could fundamentally transform the way regulators interact with employers and the public.

E-Verify: last step toward universal surveillance

The NSA Internet and cell phone surveillance programs are pervasive, but without biometric identification, the government is still only following artificial “identifiers” (Names, Numbers, IP addresses) rather than flesh and blood. E-Verify would enable such tracking. The Post informs us that technology already exists to “reliably produce the names of people in the time it takes them to walk by a video camera… in well-lit settings” with better technology on the way.

With universal surveillance comes the capability for universal control. And, in politics, what is possible becomes more and more probable. When legislators and regulators begin to discover the possibilities created by E-Verify, the end-product ultimately may be what few people who supported the original version envisioned.