Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, February 27, 2012

Breeder Documents

I first came across this term when I was exploring the different methods at our disposal to prove citizenship.  At first glance, I thought it meant "license to reproduce." Believe me, it's nothing like that. But what they really are is pretty interesting and of concern to all of us.

A very loose definition of Breeder Document would simply be:  a document that allows you to obtain other documents.  A birth certificate is probably the most common one because it establishes all sorts of things:  that you were born (good to know), where and when, and who your parents were.  That document can be matched against existing law in the country where you live to allow you to obtain other documents like a driver's license, an identity card, a voting card, a national health card and even a certificate of nationality.    In a lot of countries, if a person never goes beyond the national borders, it's possible that he or she may never have to have one.  In the first 20 years of my existence living in the U.S., it was completely superfluous (even for travel to Canada).  It only became necessary when I applied for a passport.  For those who do travel and, most importantly, for international migrants, this is often an indispensable document.  Applying for a visa may just require a passport but most countries want a little more information (the documents behind that passport) before granting you residency or citizenship.

Now this seems like an entirely reasonable request on the part of the receiving state but it assumes that the receiving country trusts your home country to have accurately recorded the birth and is now willing to certify that you are that person by issuing the document and putting an official seal on it.  Think about that for a moment - your ability to establish your identity is only as good as the trust that your host country places in your sending country and its documentation.

So do states really trust each other when it comes to breeder documents?  It depends.  There is a cost to not trusting.  Just imagine if every birth certificate presented by a potential migrant from Canada to France was considered suspect and other documents or even an investigation were required before any of these documents were accepted as legitimate.  Think of how much trouble the French authorities would have to go to (not to mention the time and money involved) to be 100% sure.  Think of how annoyed the sending state would be if they were asked to justify every document.  Not a very diplomatic move either since it does kind of imply that the host country thinks the sending country is inefficient or corrupt.   And what would be the benefit?  That the receiving state might catch a very small percentage of identity thieves?  I imagine most states have done a rough cost/benefit analysis and adjust their trust level according to what they know (or assume) about the other state.

That they probably do this does not mean that they aren't thinking about more cost effective ways to tackle the problem.  The EU issued this statement in 2009 concerning the reliability of breeder documents within the EU.   They implied that they were not even sure that member states should be trusting each other.  If that's indeed true then what about countries outside the EU?

And that brings us straight to a country with serious issues in this area:  the United States.  While Americans are very concerned (for security and immigration reasons) about false documents used to enter or stay on American soil, other countries have reasons to be a bit nervous about  breeder documents coming from entities within the United States.  According to the 2011 MPI report, A New Architecture for Border Management:
In the United States, breeder documents are issued at the state or local level:  there are 16,000 different offices that can issue birth certificates, and over 14,000 different kinds of birth certificates.
There are no common requirements and little consistency among them, and thus such documents are highly susceptible to forgery.  
Please note how carefully worded those two sentences are.  The first is a statement of fact and the second is a statement of fact with mitigating language tacked onto the end.  If we translate, basically what they are saying is the entire U.S. mechanism for producing breeder documents is decentralized to the point of absurdity and these documents cannot necessarily be trusted. They are implying both inefficiency and a strong possibility of outright fraud.  If any of you have another interpretation, I'd be happy to hear it.

This is a situation worth watching.  In all my time abroad I have never had anyone in France, Japan or any other country question my documentation from the U.S.  Up until now American citizens who travelled or lived abroad seem to have been given the benefit of the doubt;  beneficiaries of a "halo effect" conferred because the U.S. was perceived as an efficient, developed country with a certain amount of prestige and status in the world.  To the extent that people become aware of certain idiosyncrasies in the way the U.S. manages its internal affairs, we could see a bit more suspicion of Americans abroad and their documentation.  It could lessen the value of a U.S. passport and diminish the protection U.S. citizens receive when they travel.  It could also make it more difficult for U.S. citizens to get work or residency status in other countries.

Clearly we are not there yet and I should clarify here that there are many countries with worse processes than the U.S.  Nevertheless, the next time you hear Americans complaining about document fraud,  "illegals" and the like in the United States,  just remember that the U.S. is, in fact, the "tallest midget in the room."

4 comments:

Eric said...

To some extent the bad reputation of certain US documents has already spread far and wide. About five years ago I left my wallet in a bar in Hong Kong. Luckily someone turned it in at the district police station, so they called me up and told me to come in with some other photo ID & proof of address to pick it up. At the time my passport was stuck at some embassy where I was applying for a visa. So I dug up my old California driver's license, and they accepted it and gave me my wallet back. But the lady at the desk was joking with me, saying it's a good thing it was California and not New Jersey, otherwise they would have to throw me in a holding cell until they could figure out who I really was.

In Hong Kong, if you go back more than about 60 years, the birth records are so spotty that the government has to accept self-declarations of birthdates & witness statements. Some people didn't even know their own birthdate so they just made one up when they registered for an ID card. Then they lost their ID cards and forgot what birthday they made up, so they listed different ones when they applied for new ID cards. It got to the point where the government just gave up trying to keep track and put a special code letter on your ID card for "reported date of birth has been changed" --- which basically means "don't harass this guy if he gets his birthday wrong".

Victoria FERAUGE said...

That is a great story, Eric. After I wrote this piece this morning I found the 2009 GAO report that MPI was referring to: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09681t.pdf

What is really interesting about it is that puts the onus on the State department to detect fraud. Not much said about the 16,000 (UN says 6,000) different offices issuing these things. So is State supposed to take the states' word for it that all the little counties and communities are doing their jobs? Are they saying there is no fraud at that level? Or is this something they can't say because it would be politically incorrect?

Curtis Poe said...

Interesting. I've never heard the term "breeder document" outside of identity theft (which used to be more about acquisition of an alternate identity than theft).

I know the term because I used to collect strange books and I had a girlfriend going through my books and noticed I had three books about acquiring an alternate identity in the US. She paused, turned to me and said "I've never seen photos of you as a child, I've never met any of your family or any friends you've known longer than two years."

Awkward!

Several years later when she met my mother, she said she was disappointed because she secretly hoped I was in he FBI witness protection program :)

Anonymous said...

... so years later ICAO turned the whole building of initial trust into the identity of a person in a so called “Evidence of Identification (EOI)” in which the evidence of a breeder document is in-corporated. See: http://www.icao.int/Security/mrtd/Documents/TR%20-%20%20EOI%20Version%20Release%203%20Draft%2030%20April%202013.pdf