In Praise of Biometrics

It was back in 1988 when I first sat down to teach Border Patrol
officers stationed at the very porous El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border the difference between legitimate "Micas " – border crossing cards (BCCs) – and those which were fraudulent.  Incredible as it seems, the profitable art of subtle photo replacement and modified signatures was thriving along the U.S./Mexico border long before the advent of the color copier would make places like Manila epicenters of sophisticated document fraud.

Back in Juarez, we saw it ALL.  I could write a book about the fraud perpetuated at the border, and I remember lively discussions with my wonderful visa section boss, Mike Hogan, and our incredibly astute Consul General, Louis Goelz, over the problem.  I served as Fraud Officer for a period of time in Juarez, responsible for what were known as "Stateside Criteria" cases…immigrant visa processing of individuals who had married U.S. citizens and who wanted to get their permanent residency approved at a convenient border boast in Mexico or Canada instead of flying home to wherever.  Juarez, as it happened, was responsible for NYC area cases, and about 80% of the marriages we interviewed were bogus.

In the midst of the scams, I advanced an idea to my bosses, and they thought it was a fine one:  why not simply 1) include thumbprints on BCCs and 2) integrate federal criminal fingerprint and photo data at a national level, allowing border entry posts to have access to FBI ID verification information? It was a fine idea, promptly filed in the circular file by the State Department.

Well, here we are 21 years later, and the "new" concept of biometric ID enhancement is all the rage.  The TWIC card is foolproof and will keep our ports safer, we are told.  Yet there remains a certain vocal resistance to the implementation of basic biometric technologies because "in America we don't want a national ID card."  The logic behind that is valid, but rooted in emotion: the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews and others was in large part organized via the issuance of identification cards, and the post war reaction was that this kind of documentation did not belong in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Yet the concept of a national ID has continued to be the common denominator in systems utilized by some of the most civilized and democratic countries in the world.  In Latin America, the "cedula" – the ubiquitous nationa ID document – is part of everyone's daily life, sort of a combination SSA card and internal passport.  In America today, with the dual problems of illegal immigration and threat of border-crossing terrorism, common sense dictates that we need a fresh look at this option.

Several days ago the Wall Street Journal brought this issue up, and several U.S. congress members – one Democrat and one Republican – wrote what I felt was a pretty good comment to the editor.  Here you have it in its entirety:

"The Journal’s editorial “Blame the Employers” (July 16) is right to point out the shortcomings of the federal government’s E-Verify employment verification system.

Database inaccuracies and a vulnerability to identity theft and document fraud render E-Verify far from foolproof, and can subject employers to harsh sanctions when the system fails them. The government should not lag behind by continuing to cling to an employment verification system that has proved to be inadequate.

Where we disagree, however, is in equating biometrics with a national ID card. Use of state-of-the-art biometric technologies is already happening in the private sector and does not require using a card.

Consumers are increasingly given the choice to use biometrics to either prove or protect their identities, whether at the airport or at the ATM. A thumbprint or a retina scan is not the same as an ID card, as it cannot be forged, stolen or misused.

 That’s why utilizing biometrics this way in the employment verification process to confirm identity is included in our bipartisan House bill, H.R. 2028, the “New Employee Verification Act.”

Yes, there will still be unscrupulous employers and “off the books” employment, but that’s where the government should be focusing its enforcement resources—not on plant raids on law-abiding businesses with properly verified employees."

Rep. Sam Johnson (R., Texas)
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.)