Sorry, Daily Beast: E-Verify Will Be National ID

Daily Beast blogger Justin Green, who blogs on columnist David Frum’s Daily Beast blog, has responded to Wired’s recent article “Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform.” Green thinks that there is no reason for concern, writing that “fortunately, Wired’s assertion is false.” Unfortunately, he has been misled.

First, Green claims that biometric information is being collected, but “those affected are unauthorized aliens, not American citizens.” But this is incorrect. The E-Verify database will affect every single U.S. citizen who is a potential worker. Given the fact that the database will include photographs, it is biometric. Green responds by quoting an anonymous Senate aide telling him that photos aren’t “biometric” by any “reasonable definition.” This might just be semantics, but as identification expert Jim Harper notes in his book Identity Crisis:

Biometrics measures the distinct traits that people have on their bodies. Examples of physiological biometrics are all the things we think of most commonly as physical identifiers–hair color, eye color, sex, skin color, height, weight, and so on.

In other words, a picture contains a host of biometric information about you, not just one piece of biometric information. Is this an uncommon or “unreasonable” definition? Well, I think the standard for reasonable or common usage would be Wikipedia, which defines biometrics as “identifiers are the distinctive, measurable characteristics used to label and describe individuals.” Under this definition, photographs would also apply, and in an age of facial recognition software, it would certainly not be difficult to take a picture of an individual and use it to find them in such a database.

Never mind how experts or the general public use the word, the phrase biometric identification has a specific legal definition. Under 46 USC 70123, “the term “biometric identification” means use of fingerprint and digital photography images and facial and iris scan technology and any other technology considered applicable by the Department of Homeland Security.” In other words, the government itself defines photographs as biometric identification.

Second, Green claims that “the Wired article is also aggressively misleading in stating that the photo tool will include ‘photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.’” He again quotes the anonymous Senate aide, saying that Congress cannot “simply mandate individual states to just turn this information over to the federal government, that would be unconstitutional under US v. Printz.” Instead, the bill provides for states to enter into agreements with the federal government.

The Senate aide is correct, so Wired’s claim is actually a prediction rather than a provision in the bill. But it’s unlikely to be proved wrong. It is hard to imagine that states will refuse the $250 million offered to them by the bill in exchange for the photos. Already, states like Florida and Mississippi are handing over driver license and state ID information to the federal government voluntarily. It is implausible to imagine that other states would turn down millions of dollars in exchange for a few photographs.

If your photo isn’t in the database yet, the bill provides for an open-ended “identity authentication mechanism.” Although the bill doesn’t describe what this is, Green seems to think that the prospect of providing, for example, “detailed biographical information” to the government is somehow privacy enhancing—I beg to differ.

Finally, I was quoted in the article as saying that “the most worrying aspect is that this creates a principle of permission basically to do certain activities, and it can be used to restrict activities. It’s like a national ID system without the card.” Green simply asserts “Except it isn’t,” and then says the bill prohibits a national ID card. But so what? If government officials can look you up in a database with two clicks of the mouse, how is that not a national ID?

E-Verify does, and will, violate citizens’ right to live and work privately, or anonymously. It will create a centralized digital record of an individual’s E-Verify queries, worksites, and locations, and Sen. Schumer has already said he wants biometric national ID that “is used in all instances the Social Security card is used.” Moreover, it is a system that can and will be used to monitor and restrict access to almost anything from controlling Internet access to monitoring gun sales—if Americans accept that as “not national ID,” then the phrase has lost all meaning.

As Supreme Court Justice Stevens said, writing the opinion of the Court in 1995, “anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” I say, “Mr. Stevens, reinforce  that shield.”