U.S. should adopt biometrics IDs for Social Security

February 6, 2013 - 

Comprehensive immigration reform in the United States might spur the implementation of nationwide biometric identification.

BiometricUpdate.com reported last week that both John McCain and Chuck Schumer have indicated that their bipartisan approach to immigration reform in the U.S. Senate could require biometric information, such as a fingerprint, to be included in the Social Security system.

The senators indicated during a media roundtable with Politico that biometrics should be used to ensure that employers only hire U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Currently, the U.S. government estimates that there are at least 11 million living and working in the United States illegally. McCain was not sure how such a proposal would be implemented in legislation, but noted during the session that “there is technology now that could give people a Social Security card that is tamper-proof.”

Currently, Social Security is subjected to a wide range of fraud, due to the ease of obtaining a forged driver’s license in order to receive a fraudulent Social Security number. Social Security numbers can also be obtained and used illegally through identity theft. Senator Schumer acknowledged that the only way to combat fraudulent use is if the government issues a non-forgeable card, leveraging technologies such as biometrics.

While such an approach in the Senate has been endorsed by Majority Leader Harry Reid, there has been no clear endorsement of the Senate plan from the White House. It is very conceivable however that the Obama Administration is on-side.

During a recent address concerning immigration reform, President Obama outlined a proposal that mandates a fraud-resistant, tamper-resistant Social Security card and requires workers to use fraud- and tamper-resistant documents to prove authorization to work in the United States.

Obama’s proposal also seeks to establish a voluntary pilot program to evaluate new methods to authenticate identity and combat identity theft.

These proposed frameworks, which have achieved rare bipartisan endorsement, make sense, since they create controls to enhance the system’s integrity. Currently, the U.S. government cannot effectively verify worker documentation to determine whether it is legitimate. While U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers an Internet-based system, called E-Verify, that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States, the system is voluntarily and is subject to a high error rate.

Indeed, a piece in the Huffington Post recently referenced a government study conducted in 2008 that determined that nearly one percent of authorized worked are identified as unauthorized by the E-Verify system, while 54 percent of unauthorized workers were tagged as authorized.

Schumer recently stated that E-Verify “has too many false negatives and false positives.” Further only 20 states mandate the use of the system, while municipalities in California have been banned from using the system. The senator thus argues that the only way to address this poor identification rate is through the use of biometric-enabled IDs.

However, civil liberties groups who oppose the idea of biometric-enabled IDs warn that linking biometric modalities to the Social Security system has the potential to create momentum toward a national ID card. The fear of government misuse of data, and arguably the irrational fear of a more powerful and centralized federal government, continue to drive misgivings about the creation of such a national database.

Civil liberties groups are also wary due to the potential of using such a database to conduct “show me your paper” traffic stops, such as those executed in Arizona. These groups ultimately worry about the introduction of a national electronic ID (eID) card.

According to the Biometrics Research Group, in a recently issued research note: “an eID card is a government-issued document for online and offline identification.”

“Many countries, including Brazil, France, Indonesia, Poland, Russia, Malaysia and the Philippines, have been issuing electronic identity cards that will replace conventional identity cards. Other countries such as Greece and New Zealand have been actively studying their implementation.

“The typical electronic identity card has the format of a regular bank card, with printed identity information on the surface, such as personal details and a photograph, as well as an embedded microchip. An eID is more reliable than paper-based ID because it provides more data security with built-in privacy features.

“The use of digital signatures make it harder or even impossible to make a forged ID as the duplicate ones would invalidate existing digital signatures. A citizen with an eID has the ability to use it for various different services, thus making the card multi-purposed.

“In theory, an eID can be the only piece of identification that a citizen requires for all interactions with government. The cards can therefore be used for multiple purposes, including as a health insurance card for countries with socialized medicine, a social security card, a driver’s license, and for general identification.”

Of course, with the division of power favoring the states rather than the federal government in the U.S., the use of a singular card for multiple services among various levels of government (state and local) is not readily conceivable.

The federal government, through its REAL ID Act, has attempted to implement standards for state-issued identification, such as driver’s licenses across the country, but has run into a tremendous number of problems, including the assignment of costs. As a consequence, only 13 states have complied with the program.

While the use of biometrics for one main form of identification makes a tremendous amount of sense, as argued in a previous BiometricUpdate.com editorial, especially concerning the use of one, credible and dependable form of identification for national elections, we know that adoption will not come soon. As stated previously, with a lack of consensus concerning the most basic of social, economic and constitutional issues, the United States is probably not ready to implement such a national system.

With all that is at stake, the failure to adopt biometric protections for Social Security is a shame, since the system is so large and needs protection from fraud. Before groups simply oppose the use of biometrics to identify beneficiaries for social programs, they should remember that economists estimate that combined spending for all social insurance programs in 2003 constituted 37 percent of U.S. government expenditure and seven percent of the country’s gross domestic product. With over 56 million beneficiaries in the system, it is probably prudent to move towards the implementation of nationwide biometric identification in order to combat fraud, as long as there are adequate safeguards and protections concerning information sharing.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.