'08 Tech Policy Outlook: Electronic Employment Verification Systems

By David Bruggeman
March 11, 2008

Part of the immigration battles last summer was a proposal to expand what was then called the Basic Pilot program into a nationwide system of confirming a person’s employment eligibility online. For such an Electronic Employment Verification System (EEVS) to work effectively on a nationwide basis, it would have to confirm employment documents of approximately 60 million people annually, done over the Internet. This confirmation would need to be nearly immediate for all but a small number, otherwise the backlog would slow down employers, and expose potential employees to discrimination for circumstances that may be no fault of their own. For those who were denied, the appeals process must be sufficiently speedy as to inconvenience the smallest number of people possible. As this appeals process would need to go through either the Social Security Administration (SSA) or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), agencies not known for speedy resolution of appeals (if you get an appeal), the lack of confidence in a nation-wide EEVS is understandable.

Unfortunately, these concerns are unlikely to stop efforts to make such a system happen.

Last June, in front of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, USACM member Peter Neumann testified on the challenges in scaling up databases. The biggest lesson from Dr. Neumann’s testimony is that problems will appear in the larger version of a database that could not be predicted when it was running in the smaller version. The proposed system for scaling up to a national EEVS is the former Basic Pilot program, now called E-Verify. Currently being used by 17,000 employers (only 9,000 of them use it actively), the system would need to expand to handle 5.9 million employers (an increase of over 340-fold). You can read Jim Harper’s extensive analysis and history of EEVS for additional details on the system.

While we continued to emphasize the technical challenges of a national EEVS in a subesquent briefing of Congressional staff (see third item), there is still an expectation that large national databases can be built quickly, securely and accurately. These expectations are reflected in immigration bills introduced recently, some of which include provisions for nationalizing the E-Verify system. They are also reflected in the continuing pressure from the Department of Homeland Security to expand the use of E-Verify.

HR 5515, the New Employee Verification Act of 2008, was introduced on March 6. The sponsors are Republican members of the Social Security Subcommittee, so the provisions of their bill at least try to address the concerns we raised before them last summer. Even so, there are still concerns that the bill is asking for too much. This is a common problem with legislation involving technological fixes – an expectation that the desired solutions are cheap, easy and feasible. This most likely fails on all three counts.

HR 5515 tries to expand E-Verify/the Basic Pilot program by creating an Electronic Employment Verification System and a Secure Electronic Employment Verification System (which would include some additional requirements for demonstrating and verifying identity, mainly through private entities). This legislation has a more realistic implementation schedule and more time for addressing data errors with the SSA or DHS. The bill also establishes an advisory panel to handles privacy and security concerns.

The Senate legislation, S 2711, focuses on worksite enforcement, and appears to lift its provisions about the EEVS straight from last year’s legislation. This means shorter timeframes for implementing the EEVS (the full workforce must be on the system within 3 years of passage), less time to appeal data errors at an overburdened SSA, and no significant security, privacy or access controls to better protect the information in the system. It is unclear how far either bill will go, as the immigration issues – at least within Congress – seems to have even less momentum behind it than it did last summer.

As a result, a likely turn of events related to an EEVS is to see the DHS expand its use through other means. Efforts to expand the use of E-Verify could include requiring federal contractors to use the system or convincing states that the system would decrease illegal immigration (something not at all clear, as someone could steal legitimate documents and evade detection). Expect tactics similar to those used to expand the REAL ID program.