As part of immigration reform, some lawmakers want Social Security cards that come with a fingerprint. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) say that biometric identification could soon be required for employment. On Thursday, McCain said he was for a Social Security card with enhanced technology. Schumer supports the idea too. Likewise, President Obama has called for Social Security cards with “new methods to authenticate identity.”
Not so fast. No amount of bipartisan support can make biometric ID cards a good idea. The logistics would be a burden upon millions of Americans. The costs of creating such a system would be enormous, and the threat of a security breach constant. Not only will biometric ID cards be a tough sell to the public, they will not prevent unauthorized employment.
Consider how the introduction of a biometric Social Security card would affect the average person. Every one of our country’s 156 million workers would have to gather documents and apply at a government office in person, to be fingerprinted and issued a card. The card would be scanned at the bearer’s place of employment, and the result checked against a national database to ensure that the person is authorized to work. Even if this system were 99 percent accurate, that means 1.5 million people would be incorrectly deemed ineligible to work. Every error would result in lost wages and productivity, while the costs of obtaining correct documentation will naturally fall hardest upon the poor.
A national biometric ID would be hugely expensive. A 2012 study by the University of California at Berkeley estimated that creating such a system would cost $40 billion initially, with annual maintenance costs of $3 billion. These figures include the expenses of training workers to examine documents, issue cards, and verify employment eligibility, as well as the expenses of new hardware and software. Add into this the costs to employers, who would be required to have card scanners, which could prove problematic for medium-sized and small businesses.
Schumer wants a “non-forgeable card,” according to The Huffington Post, while McCain wants one that is “tamper-proof.” Sounds good, but is that possible? A card that is tamper-proof in 2013 may not be tamper-proof in 2023. A national database would mean that any security breach – one successful hacking into the encrypted data – would put the personal information of millions at risk of identity theft. This is a very real possibility. Between 2000 and 2008, federal and state governments mishandled or exposed 530 million records with personal data. And these are only the security breaches that have been publicly reported.
True, many Americans provide biometric data for credit cards, and our cell phones contain a trove of personal information. However, these are voluntary activities. A mandatory biometric Social Security card would be a different matter. Conservatives will decry the intrusion of government into their lives, while liberals will worry about their civil liberties. Workers would also have no way to ensure that their data is used only for its intended purpose, and not for surveillance or unauthorized monitoring. No wonder Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union calls biometric ID cards “a massive invasion of people’s privacy.”
Meanwhile, biometric ID cards will not prevent illegal employment. Any contractor who wants to hire undocumented day laborers could still do so. Ditto for those looking for an undocumented restaurant worker. Just as they do now, employers could hire these workers off the books, completely flouting the law. The best way to crack down on illegal hiring is to crack down on employers – not to inconvenience law-abiding citizens.
Biometric ID cards remain a flawed, impractical proposition; their cost is too high, and their benefit too little. Asking every American to compromise their privacy because the government cannot control illegal immigration is simply unacceptable.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.