Privacy groups protest proposed E-Verify bill

ACLU, EEF, others say Legal Workforce Act would result in large, government-controlled 'error-prone' database of highly sensitive information

A proposal to force employers to use the federal E-Verify system to vet new employees has stoked widespread privacy concerns.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Liberty Coalition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several other civil liberties, privacy and labor groups last week urged Congress to reject the Legal Workforce Act of 2011.

The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would require that all U.S employers use E-Verify determine whether new hires and current employees can legally work in the U.S.

Only federal contractors are currently required to use E-Verify, an Internet-based employment eligibility verification system, though laws have been proposed in several states to mandate its use.

Smith's bill would require that all employers compare information supplied by current and prospective employees with information contained in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) databases.

As part of the verification process, the Social Security number provided by new hires would be compared with the name on record.

Smith's bill also proposes a pilot biometric authentication program that would let employers fingerprint employees as part of the vetting process.

The bill calls for penalties of up to $25,000 per violation and imprisonment of at least one year for employers who refuse to use E-Verify.

Backers say the goal of the bill is to curb illegal immigration to the U.S.

"Despite record unemployment, seven million people work in the U.S. illegally," Smith said in a statement accompanying the bill when it was filed last month. "These jobs should go to legal workers."

Civil rights and privacy groups, however, contend that it would lead to the creation of a huge database containing highly sensitive information. The database would be hard to protect and be ripe for misuse, the groups said in a letter addressed to the full membership of the U.S. House.

"A nationwide mandatory E-Verify system would be one of the largest and most widely accessible databases of private information ever created in the U.S." the advocacy groups wrote. "Its size and openness would present an irresistible target for identity thieves."

The scope of the data in the system could also prompt U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to use it for other purposes, the letter said.

"Because E-Verify contains photos and will very soon contain drivers' license information, it could quickly evolve into a national identity system," the groups warned.

In a blog post, Adi Kamdar of the EFF said the proposed bill would create a "bureaucratic nightmare for American businesses" while offering little to combat illegal immigration. At the same time, the plan would become "an enticement to malicious hackers and an enormous risk of unintended disclosure," Kamdar said.

Those opposed to E-Verify have long maintained that it improperly flags a large number of eligible workers as ineligible for U.S. employment.

In its letter to Congress, the coalition of civil rights and privacy groups said the bill would, "for the first time in history, require every American to be checked against an error-prone government database. The risks to individual privacy are too great and the likely benefits are too small to justify inserting the federal government into every hiring decision made,"

In a press conference on immigration issues last week, President Barack Obama expressed similar concerns in calling for improvements to the E-Verify system.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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