Tuesday, May 14, 2013

'Wired' drops biometric fly into Senate's immigration ointment

Wired threw the double whammy of "Biometric" and "National ID" into the middle of the Senate and national debate on overhauling the U.S. immigration system.

The article that touched it all this off is:

Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform (Wired)
The immigration reform measure the Senate began debating yesterday would create a national biometric database of virtually every adult in the U.S., in what privacy groups fear could be the first step to a ubiquitous national identification system.
Organs on both sides of the American political scene — the left-leaning Daily Beast and the right-leaning Daily Caller — found the Wired piece wanting.

The Immigration Bill does not create a 'biometric database of all adult Americans' (Daily Beast)
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: [ed. article continues]
‘Wired’s attack on immigration reform gets biometrics wrong (Daily Caller) 
Any E-Verify system that could actually prevent fraud will necessarily be more intrusive than the current system. In this case, an effort is being made to guarantee job applicants actually are who they say they are — that they are not merely stealing someone else’s social security number.

This is not to say we shouldn't be vigilant in regards to protecting our civil liberties. There is a natural tension at play as immigration reformers work to create a system that actually prevents the employment of illegals who wish to skirt the law.
Both articles also run with a novel (to me) argument, potentially from the same source, that a face photo isn't really biometric in nature.

Daily Beast:
That isn't a "biometric" data set by any reasonable definition. As a Senate aide told me: [ed. cont'd]
Daily Caller:
There is also a semantics problem with the Wired story; photographs, I am told, don’t technically qualify as “biometrics.” 
That will come as quite a shock to many people who have been developing facial recognition algorithms for a decade or more and the thousands of people who use facial recognition technologies already. If drivers license-style photos of faces aren't reasonably good proxies for unique identifiers, why do photo ID's exist in the first place?

David Bier writing at OpenMarket.org provides valuable commentary in Sorry, Daily Beast: E-Verify Will Be National ID.

This bit reinforces the point we made above:
Never mind how experts or the general public use the word, the phrase biometric identification has a specific legal definition. Under 46 USC 70123, “the term “biometric identification” means use of fingerprint and digital photography images and facial and iris scan technology and any other technology considered applicable by the Department of Homeland Security.” In other words, the government itself defines photographs as biometric identification. [ed. all emphasis and link in orig.]