Why Are Social Security Cards Still Easy To Fake?

PHOTO: A national ID card that contains fingerprint data has been proposed many times, but never gained steam.John Kuczala/Getty Images
A national ID card that contains fingerprint data has been proposed many times, but never gained steam.

Improving Social Security cards -- that's one of the things that an immigration bill in the Senate aims to do.

There are a bunch of ways you could try to accomplish this, but one controversial option has been around for decades and has never really gathered much momentum. Create a secure card using "biometric" data.

The idea sounds more futuristic than it really is. "Biometric" authentication is basically identifying humans by their physical traits, so the card would have something along the lines of fingerprint or eye scan data.

The current Senate proposal says it would make Social Security cards "fraud-resistant, tamper-resistant, wear-resistant, and identity theft-resistant" within five years. But it doesn't call for the use of biometrics specifically.

There are reasons for that.

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In 1986, when the last large-scale legalization program took place, the legislators working on the bill were also considering a biometric ID as part of the package.

But the idea ran upon rocky shores for a few reasons. One was technology, according to Charles Kamasaki, the executive vice president of National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

The federal government "would not have been able to come out with a counterfeit-proof official document that would both be available to all workers and could have prevented fraud," said Kamasaki, who is currently writing a book about the 1986 immigration law. "The technology just didn't exist."

Today, producing a biometric card for all residents and citizens remains a hurdle, if only because of the cost.

A 2012 study by an institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law found that a mandatory biometric ID card would cost $40 billion at the outset and $3 billion per year to maintain.

But even if the government found a way to justify that cost, it would still take a lot to get everyone to agree to the idea.

That's because, as far back as 1986, proposals for biometric IDs have been attacked from both the right and left, by libertarians and civil rights groups, respectively.

Libertarians oppose such cards for a variety of reasons, one of which is the impact on businesses, according to David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank.

"The main objection from a business perspective is simply the risk of penalties and threats," he said. "Employers could be put in a position where they have to verify the authenticity of an identification card, and could face fines if there's a mistake."

Bier also thinks heightened workplace enforcement will fail to address the issue of undocumented workers. "The only proven way to end illegal immigration is a robust legal immigration process, whether guest workers or otherwise," he said.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have different concerns.

"From the ACLU's point of view, a biometric national ID card represents a massive privacy invasion," said Christopher Calabrese, the ACLU's legislative counsel for privacy-related issues. "It changes the relationship between the citizens and the state, so things that you used to be able to do as a citizen, like work or travel, suddenly you need this card to do that."

The Senate immigration bill doesn't include a biometric Social Security card, and that isn't likely to change, even as the bill is tweaked in the legislative process.

There's an alternative that the group thinks will be a strong deterrent against hiring undocumented workers, however. Under the bill, an electronic employment verification system, called E-Verify, would be phased in for all businesses within four years.

The same forces -- libertarians and civil rights groups -- will likely push back against mandatory employment verification. But since the system is already in use and mandatory in some states, it's an easier sell.