David Frum

05.13.13

The Immigration Bill Does NOT Create a 'Biometric Database of All Adult Americans'

Did you hear about how the proposed immigration reform bill will create, in the words of the headline writers at Wired, a "Biometric Database of All Adult Americans"?

The idea of the government creating a massive biometric database for virtually all adult Americans is indeed terrifying, and if the story was true, would be cause for genuine outrage.

Fortunately, Wired's assertion is false. Here are the facts:

SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images ()

1) Biometric data collection

Biometric information is being collected by the government for the purpose of determining provisional immigration status, but those affected are unauthorized aliens, not American citizens. As part of the process of transitioning to provisional status, immigrants will be required to submit biometric data: their fingerprints. Without fingerprints, the government would be hard-pressed to undertake the national security and criminal background checks that must be completed prior to granting unauthorized aliens the temporary work permits that accompany provisional status.

2. The "photo tool"

The immigration bill creates what is called a "photo tool" to add another layer of security onto the existing E-Verify program. If you've ever applied for a visa, passport, or federal work authorization, the federal government already has your photo.

But guess what? That isn't a "biometric" data set by any reasonable definition. As a Senate aide told me:

Biometrics typically refer to certain physiological traits that are distinctly unique to you, like your fingerprints, an iris scan, or your DNA that comes off on those small sticks that you swab on the inside of your cheek at the doctor's office. Photographs of you do not, in and of themselves, possess these types of traits that identify you based on your own unique physiological characteristics; thus, no one can say that they are in fact biometrics.

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."

Sorry, but no. That same aide told me the following:

The federal government can only access state driver's license photos if the state and the federal government enter into an agreement to share them; if the federal government were to simply mandate individual states to just turn this information over to the federal government, that would be unconstitutional under US v. Printz.

States may very well decide they want to go ahead with such an arrangement, but that certainly won't be mandated by this bill, and it's approaching fearmongering territory to suggest otherwise.

In fact, if you don't have a passport and your state doesn't decide to share photographs with the federal government, your photo won't appear in the database at all. Instead, you'll be asked to provide detailed biographical data to ensure your identity is not being fraudulently used to secure employment.

3. Mission creep: this will lead to a National ID Card

David Kravets, the author of the Wired piece, worries that this will all slip down the slope to more government in our lives:

For now, the legislation allows the database to be used solely for employment purposes. But historically such limitations don’t last. The Social Security card, for example, was created to track your government retirement benefits. Now you need it to purchase health insurance.

“The Social Security number itself, it’s pretty ubiquitous in your life,” [ACLU lawyer Chris] Calabrese said.

David Bier, an analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agrees with the ACLU’s fears.

“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,” he said. “It’s like a national ID system without the card.”

Except it isn't. If you're scared that E-Verify will inevitably lead down the road to a National ID card, you probably haven't been the slightest bit persuaded by the above arguments. But in case you're still reading, note what the actual law says about a National ID card:

NO AUTHORIZATION OF NATIONAL IDENTIFICATION CARDS.—Nothing in this section may be construed to directly or indirectly authorize the issuance, use, or establishment of a national identification card.

That's right, no National ID card, and a workplace verification system that is little different in theory -- if not practice -- than the status quo.

To recap: there is no "biometric" photo set, the actual biometric data (fingerprints) the government is collecting affects immigrants only, the federal government won't be grabbing your license photos for some massive database, and there is no National ID card - or even a system resembling it - on the way.

Calm down, America, and read the bill. (The relevant information begins on page 172).

I've reached out to the offices of Senators responsible for the bill for comment, and will update as they reply.

Update, 8:00 AM: Alex Conant, Sen. Marco Rubio's press secretary, emailed me his thoughts on Wired's assertion:

The legislation does not propose creating a national database of Americans' biometric data, and any suggestion to the contrary is a misreading of the bill. Senator Rubio's goal is to reduce future illegal immigration by creating an effective employment verification system that uses existing public databases, offers alternative ways to establish identity, and establishes an appeals process to protect people's employment rights.

Update, 4:45 PM: Think Progress' Andrea Peterson takes issue with my claim that photos do not count as biometric data, and I think I must concur:

Your face is, in fact, a unique physiological characteristic — one technology is increasingly able to track. Even if you have a twin, there is no one in the world who has your exact face — thus an identifiable photo of your face is a piece of biometric data. That’s why the FBI Biometric Center of Excellence supports facial recognition and identification work.

While facial recognition tech lags behind the identifiers like iris scans, fingerprints or DNA — tests showed the best algorithms in 2010 could correctly identify someone from a 1.6 million person database with 92 percent accuracy — facial recognition is used on photo databases in many agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice.