E-Verify’s biometric database: A huge step toward a permission-slip society

“Maybe we should just brand all the babies.” With this mocking remark, Ronald Reagan dismissed a national ID proposal in 1981. In the 32 years since, Americans have rejected various forms of national ID. But now biometric national ID is back at America’s doorstep, and most Americans don’t even realize.

Inside the Senate’s immigration reform proposal is a section on electronic employment verification. This will mandate employers use a system, known as E-Verify, to check the Form I-9 information of all employees — citizens and immigrants — against a federal database containing their name, Social Security number (SSN), address, date of birth and work authorization status.

The Senate bill expands the current system by reimbursing states for the costs of submitting driver’s license and state ID photos to the database. Unless states refuse the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated by the bill for this purpose, which is highly unlikely, the Department of Homeland Security will have a national biometric identification database that includes every U.S. worker.

Some have argued this is not truly “biometric” because it fails to include fingerprints or retina scans. But biometrics are simply physiological identifiers — as opposed to artificial ones, such as your name or SSN. In fact, as identity expert Jim Harper notes, photos actually include a host of biometric information: facial features, hair color, eye color, skin color, gender, etc.

It’s not just experts who consider photos “biometric” — the U.S. government does as well. Under 46 USC 70123, biometric identification includes “digital photography images” and “facial scan technology.” Using facial recognition software, the digital photos from state IDs and passports will enable DHS to easily identify people with publicly available pictures.

E-Verify also creates a digital history of employers, worksites and locations of E-Verify queries. Such a system is surveillance no matter how benign it may appear initially — it centralizes information on the whereabouts, employment and activities of citizens, and makes that information readily available for a variety of purposes in the future.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), a lead sponsor of the bill, claims this would not be “national ID” because that’s something “you’d have to show whenever a police officer or anyone came up to you.” Of course, national ID would not initially be used in all instances. What is relevant is whether it can be used to identify a person at any given time.

E-Verify, enhanced with photos, creates a system that can do exactly that — it easily can be mobilized to monitor or restrict access to anything. This is not hypothetical. E-Verify’s present purpose is to restrict access to employment — a radical increase in federal control over the workforce.

Although E-Verify currently targets immigrants, the way the system operates shows it can be used to restrict legal activity to anything and that there is no logical or practical limit to its use. It is illegal to rent to unauthorized immigrants, for example, so a logical next step would be to mandate that landlords use E-Verify.

Sen. Schumer has stated he wants biometric IDs to “be used in the same cases when you use a Social Security card.” But Social Security numbers are already used in hundreds of ways, to prove identity for jobs, health records, bank accounts, credit cards and much else. If E-Verify were ultimately used in this manner, it would create an extensive digital record of movement and activities.

Beyond such surveillance, the system quickly could be turned to monitor or restrict access to guns, the Internet and anything else. The federal government already can prohibit individuals from flying by placing them on the “no fly list,” and banks and financial institutions must check with the government before allowing citizens to open bank accounts, make certain types of deposits or take out loans.

E-Verify’s justification — that it will end illegal immigration — defies everything we know about black markets, and its $8.5 billion price tag should give us pause. But the best reason to oppose E-Verify is that it takes America one huge step toward a permission-slip society, vastly increasing the power of government over its citizens.

As then-Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the Court’s majority opinion in the 1995 case McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority” — by which he meant that anonymity protects us from tyranny by keeping our actions private and unreviewable by others. Let’s reinforce that shield.