False Positives Would Cripple Electronic Employment Verification

from the your-papers-please dept

My Cato colleague Jim Harper has a new paper looking at proposals to implement a nationwide electronic "employment eligibility verification" program. This was one of the key elements of last year's immigration proposals. Under the EEV program, every employer in the United States would have had to submit the names and Social Security numbers of new hires to a centralized government database. The system would match the submitted information against various databases, and return an answer to the employer about whether the employee could be hired. Employees who received a negative answer would be required to go hat in hand to a federal bureaucracy, seeking to prove their "eligibility" for employement.

While Jim doesn't quite put it this way, the fundamental problem with a system like this is that it would inevitably face a difficult trade-off between false-positive and false-negative errors. Strictly enforcing the rules will deprive many eligible workers -- including American citizens -- of the ability to make a living. A single mis-typed digit during data entry could cause an American citizen weeks of grief the next time he tried to change jobs. On the other hand, if the system errs on the side of caution and allows workers to continue working while their paperwork is straightened out, many illegal immigrants would slip through the filters. My guess is that as soon as a significant number of American citizens started being deprived of their right to work -- or required to spend days arguing with federal bureaucrats to clear their names -- the DHS would face intense political pressure to loosen the rules. But if the rules aren't going to be strictly enforced, what's the point of having the system in the first place?

Jim also points out that electronic verification would greatly increase incentives for identity fraud. If getting a job required presenting the name and social security number of a legal worker, this would create a lucrative new revenue source for information gleaned from the data breaches that have become a fact of modern life. (And it doesn't help that the Real ID Act itself creates additional vulnerabilities to privacy breaches) American citizens -- especially those with Hispanic surnames -- would begin discovering that illegal immigrants were applying for jobs with their names and Social Security numbers. And because the DHS wouldn't have any easy way of determining whose identification was real and whose was fraudulent, these legal workers would be fired unless they could prove their identity to the satisfaction of federal bureaucrats within a few days of starting work. Thankfully, this debacle was avoided when Congress failed to pass immigration legislaton last year. But the issue will inevitably come up again, and when it does, it would be good to give more scrutiny to proposals to put a federal bureaucracy in charge of deciding who is "eligible" to earn a living.



Reader Comments (rss)

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    It Wasnt me, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 5:45pm

    so??!!!

    the issues mentioned here apply for everything related to bureaucracy.

    I am not trying to defend such a proposal, but there is no fool proof system, so I don't think that a project can or should be decided on solely because of those issues.

     

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    Wooster11 (profile), Mar 10th, 2008 @ 5:48pm

    Not only that but...

    Not only that but what's to stop employers from doing what they do today with illegals; hire them under the table. Most illegals who do work don't have any kind of reported income. Employers aren't paying taxes for them nor are the employees. This is especially true with small businesses. An employer would just hire someone and completely skip the step of having to verify their eligibility. I understand that this is illegal, but it's extremely difficult to enforce. In addition to that, how can we expect small mom and pop type places to all implement this new technology to even check possible hires when many of them are technologically illiterate themselves.

    A system like that, although their heart is in the right place, isn't practical at all and is bound to fail.

     

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    Rebecca, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 5:59pm

    Already exists

    I worked in an area that had a 'summer' season. The business was highly encouraged to enroll in a homeland security thing that was a verification system.

    http://www.ice.gov/partners/opaimage/index.htm

    As for Hispanic names being flagged, it all depends on where you live. Where I was, it was Brazilian, Russian, and Bulgarian.

     

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    Mr. Rodgers, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 6:13pm

    Wont you be my neighbor

    Is this really within their purview? I just do not see it.
    Is this an issue with jobs? Aren't there more jobs being outsourced than being taken by "illegals"?
    How is this a problem that requires federal interference in business employment decisions?

     

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    ma1wrbu5tr, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 6:25pm

    A parallel

    Slightly off-topic, but a great example.

    I work at an anti-virus company. I've seen false positives cripple productivity for a user.

    This actually happened

    AV/AS software flags some font packages and quarantines them and associated regKeys.
    Web developer can't change fonts in his design software.
    And this...

    AV software breaks M$ Word
    And this...

    AV software breaks many P2P apps...
    And this...

    and games...
    And this...

    Realife parallels would include long lines for body cavity searches for "suspected terrorist" and maybe a few "I'm sorry Mr. Jabaar, we're looking for someone with less experience".
    ;)

     

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    eoj, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 7:42pm

    Actually

    We do something like this for userids at work. I don't know if using a SSN would be a good idea though looking at the track records of companies that retain this data...

     

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    Jake, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 7:49pm

    At the risk of wandering off the topic and into broader issues, perhaps it's time certain elements of the legislature and the executive faced up to the fact that the immigration policy that EEV is supposed to be helping them enforce is no longer practical. We have a similar problem here in the UK with the mandatory identity card scheme that's supposed to be rolling out in the next few years, and I suspect this new idea will follow a similar pattern; the contract will go to the cheapest bidder, who will do a slapdash bodge-job that costs about twice the highest bidder's asking price to tweak until it is merely mediocre, and all it will really achieve is act as a strong incentive not to hire anyone with dark skin or a funny accent. (The scheme's advocates will be at best divided on whether this is actually a bad thing.) Then somebody will copy the whole database onto his totally unsecured laptop and leave it in full view on the back seat of his car, or put it all on a couple of data CDs and send them somewhere by a courier firm, who will lose them. At this point the scheme will disintegrate into Kafkaesque farce, with the right-wing press claiming that all this could have been avoided if all illegal immigrants -and probably blacks, Jews and homosexuals for good measure- were expelled from the country, and the government extolling the virtues of their new flagship database scheme for sorting everything out and probably curing cancer as well. Repeat, quite literally, ad nauseum.

     

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    Jim Harper, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 9:41pm

    False Positives / Negatives

    I wrote about this in terms of tension between false-positives and false-negatives in my testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

     

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    Rose M. Welch, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 10:30pm

    Who is going to pay...

    ...for all of this monitering? All the media can talk about is everyone's debt and cutting taxes and so on... So where is this money going to come from? Are we cutting the salary of our Congressmen to get it? Because I don't see where else we're going to get it.

    Poor people have a hard enough time getting IDs as it is, without adding this rigamorole onto it. Yay, taxpayers! You get to pay for this foolish system, and then pay more for the people on welare who can't get jobs! This totally makes sense, y'all.

     

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    Woadan, Mar 11th, 2008 @ 1:17am

    Why not...?

    To get a clearance, you fill out some online questions, and someone verifies it.

    A clearance is a more important issue, which requires greater scrutiny, which translates into weeks or months of investigations. But this could be set up once, takes less time (much less), and would be available ever after. Driver/ID cards could start it off. One required trip in person and then ever after you're good to go.

    I despise the leaks as much as the next guy or gal. But I believe the problem is too much focus on the back-end (the data itself), and too little on the front-end (permissions based on role based on need to see). Put the focus on the front, less of a problem. I'd rather have all the data in one place because it's easier to input the data once, and share after only what is appropriate. The reason data gets leaked is because access is the prime motivator, when security should be. Change that in the equation and it is no, or little, problem at all.

    Also, making the entry twice, preferably by two separate people, and having to have both entries equal each other would seem a good solution. When they don't match, a third person reviews and corrects so the entries match.

    Just my tuppence,

    Woadan

     

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    BTR1701, Mar 11th, 2008 @ 5:36am

    Big Government

    > the fundamental problem with a system like this
    > is that it would inevitably face a difficult
    > trade-off between false-positive and false-negative
    > errors.

    It's kind of frightening in and of itself that you've identified the fundamental problem with this proposal as a technical issue and not the fact that it requires every citizen to ask permission from the government to do something as basic and fundamental as work for a living.

    The idea that I would need the government's permission before I could hire someone or work for someone is chilling.

     

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    Charming Charlie, Mar 11th, 2008 @ 5:50am

    It's a shame that the legislature isn't a company that works with the Techdirt Insight Community on technology issues.

     

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    Duplicate Effort, Mar 11th, 2008 @ 6:33am

    Wasted Tax Money

    This law is simply an automation of the process businesses are SUPPOSED to use without exception. Have you taken a position with a major US company lately? You have to provide at least two documents to prove your identity (or just one if you have a passport). Some companies even demand corresponding employment data from your previous employer and do a background check. Current Federal guidelines for documenting new hires is an expensive, time consuming and burdensome process that is far from foolproof. You can still get false positives due to typos, people can submit forged documents, and none of this works if the employer simply pays the worker under the table.

    I think many people have jumped to the conclusion that any false positive means you automatically get dumped into the Federal system to sort out the mess. I would think any savvy business would want to review returned submissions for entry errors before turning a potential employee away. That's just good business.

    Many are also missing a potential benefit. If your identity was stolen then this process could help you tremendously. You would be able to quickly lock down your credit, clear falsely attributed arrest and conviction records, clean up your employment history, and seize control of your personal data.

    Will there be false positives? Undoubtedly. But it is an unreasonable to conclude that because a proposed process has potential potential points of failure then only alternative is the status quo.

     

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    Peter, Mar 11th, 2008 @ 7:46am

    The ironic part is that the largest employer of illegal workers in the US is the federal government.

     

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    Charming Charlies, Mar 11th, 2008 @ 9:40pm

    The ironic part is that the largest employer of illegal workers in the US is the federal government.
    Cite your sources or don't state facts at all.

     

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    Pat, May 17th, 2009 @ 2:02am

    employment verification

    Lot's of business firm today are performing this kind of employment verification to ensure the credibility of the employee...

     

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    criminal background, May 18th, 2009 @ 1:43pm

    criminal background

    Most company are not performing criminal background and Not only that but what's to stop employers from doing what they do today with illegals; hire them under the table. Most illegals who do work don't have any kind of reported income. Employers aren't paying taxes for them nor are the employees. This is especially true with small businesses. An employer would just hire someone and completely skip the step of having to verify their eligibility. I understand that this is illegal, but it's extremely difficult to enforce. In addition to that, how can we expect small mom and pop type places to all implement this new technology to even check possible hires when many of them are technologically illiterate themselves.

     

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    greg, Jun 11th, 2009 @ 7:59pm

    E Verify

    Here is the jist of it.. Illegals cost you idiots more in tax dollars wasted than this system would, wake up you morons!! gangs, illegal children running around, job stealing of American citizens.. The damn database is already in place with legit American's social security numbers, dob, etc.. quit whining and being fools, this is needed to keep the garbage out of the country and should be mandatory for every damn business and if it's not followed NO BUSINESS!! Get it, the illegals know how to cheat the system, they can't cheat what they can't change which is a database. morons.

     

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