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Biometric IDs: Your Fingerprints, Please

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July 21, 2009

Today, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security held a hearing called "Ensuring a Legal Workforce: What Changes Should be Made to Our Current Employment Verification System?" The subcommittee considered a biometric ID system to determine work eligibility. That means going to a government office, showing them a photo ID or birth certificate, and then presenting a biometric, likely a fingerprint. Those fingerprints would then be placed in a database or on a national ID card. Everyone—and we mean everyone—would then be required to present their fingerprint to their employers for verification of their work eligibility against government databases.

Bad idea.

Would anyone be surprised to learn that government databases aren't exactly shining models of accuracy? In 2007, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff proposed the No-Match rule, which would use the Social Security Administration (SSA) database to determine employment eligibility. Problem: The SSA's databases contain a plethora of discrepancies — 17.8 million of them, according to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The OIG also reports that 12.7 million of those 17.8 million discrepancies in SSA's database belong to native-born U.S. citizens. That's more than 70 percent.

You can see how determining work eligibility with a federal database isn't so swift.

In testimony submitted to the subcommittee, ACLU attorney Chris Calabrese points out that a biometric national ID system would not only create a "No-Work List" ensnaring lawful workers — like American citizens — due to the high error rate in federal databases, but it would also establish a hugely expensive new federal bureaucracy. We know this because its costs would be similar to those of the Read ID debacle. With the Real ID Act of 2005, federalizing state drivers' licenses would cost more than $23 billion; with the addition of a biometric ID system, the cost of the system would be, well, hard to imagine. We're talking bailout amounts here, people.

It's pretty safe to say whatever it costs, it's a bill the states don't need right now, when they're furloughing their employees and paying bills with IOUs.

Coming soon: Why biometric ID's won't help with the "immigration problem."

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