Witnesses: E-Verify system can't detect ID theft

Flaw could allow dishonest workers to thwart the system

The Homeland Security Department’s E-Verify employment verification system cannot detect identity theft and fraudulent applications, according to testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee.

The Internet-based E-Verify system allows employers to check Social Security numbers for their employees and prospective employees to determine whether the numbers are valid and the employees are therefore eligible to work. However, it is not designed to detect borrowed or stolen Social Security numbers.

“E-Verify is not without its flaws, including one fundamental problem: its inability to detect identity theft,” Lynden Melmed, former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), told the committee's Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship Subcommittee on July 21. “Unlawful workers can beat E-Verify by using another individual's valid identification.”

USCIS has been expanding its database of photographs to be used as a back-up checking tool to ensure that the images of applicants presenting their Social Security numbers to E-Verify match in appearance the images in photos existing in current government systems linked to the same Social Security number. However, the photographic matching is limited in scope, Melmed added.

Melmed endorsed the idea of strengthening E-Verify to include possible fingerprint collection.

“Congress should therefore give consideration to using E-Verify as a platform and expanding photo-tool for currently issued documents and/or incorporating a new biometric identification document,” Melmed said.

Former USCIS Commissioner James Ziglar told the panel, "If someone has stolen an identity and presents legitimate documents connected to that identity, or presents fraudulent documents which make use of stolen identity data, the purpose of the employment eligibility verification exercise can be defeated.”

“In my opinion, it would border on irresponsible not to seriously analyze the possibility of incorporating a biometric identification and verification module into the E-Verify system,” Ziglar said.

E-Verify is a voluntary system used by about 134,000 employers, though it is mandatory to some degree in 12 states. Under an executive order from the Bush administration, federal contractors were supposed to begin mandatory use of E-Verify in January. However, that deadline has been pushed back to Sept. 8 due to a lawsuit. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently said the Sept. 8 deadline would be firm.

The E-Verify system has been controversial due to alleged high error rates in the databases used. USCIS acknowledges a 3.1 percent rate of initial non-matches in the system.

The Migration Policy Institute on July 20 issued a report recommending that DHS test several options to strengthen E-Verify, including use of personal identification numbers and biometric scans.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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