Update on Digitization of Vital Records

The 9-11 Commission recommended that the federal government standardize birth records in order to better verify identity and prevent fraud – which is important for many areas of policy, including immigration and border control. The REAL ID Act of 2005 incorporated that recommendation. In the month since the January 2011 publication of "REAL ID Implementation: Less Expensive, Doable, and Helpful in Reducing Fraud", which provided background and review of the program now implementing this key 9/11 Commission recommendation, five more states got on board with vital-record checks.

More specifically, the states that have installed the hardware and software necessary to support electronic vital records checks within the past month are Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. There are now 28 states online ready to perform birth certificate verification for other state DMVs and other users. All states have digitized their vital records (birth and death records) to some degree, though there is variation in how far back they go: North Dakota has digitized its records going back to 1870, while Washington, D.C., goes back all the way to 2009.

EVVE map
Dates on the states indicate the year from which vital record digitization begins there and thus the data currently available to EVVE for verification.

The goal of the Electronic Verification of Vital Events (EVVE) system, an initiative by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems Association, representing the nation's 57 vital records jurisdictions, is to have all 50 states, 5 territories, New York City, and Washington, D.C., fully on board by the May 2011 secure driver license compliance deadline set out in REAL ID. However, with pending news of an extension of the REAL ID deadlines perhaps out as much as three years, EVVE will likely be fully implemented significantly before any REAL ID compliance deadlines extended beyond a year.

Agencies in the federal government are taking advantage of the funding provided through the REAL ID Act – ironically, the states are only sporadically doing so. Examples of use of EVVE to verify birth data presented by applicants include:

  • Social Security Administration, in every state for all applicants;
  • State Department's Fraud Prevention Offices, to determine potential fraud for passport issuance;
  • Office of Personnel Management, for federal employees and government contractors who do not present a paper birth certificate;
  • Medicaid offices in Minnesota, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Washington State, to prevent fraud in benefits;
  • Departments of Motor Vehicles in Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota, to verify birth data on ID and driver license applications.

The following institutions are installing EVVE for use:

  • Army National Guard for recruits;
  • Department of Labor for unemployment benefits applications.

The following high-profile immigration-related programs have inquired about EVVE for potential support (and would benefit greatly):

  • Customs and Border Protection, for those applications for admission into the United States who do not present a passport but claim U.S. citizenship;
  • E-Verify, for work authorization verification of applicant data.

What Is Left to Do?

The states need to get on board and start using EVVE in their driver license issuance, public health, and employee checks. Of course, REAL ID funded EVVE implementation to help provide a solid foundation for identity verification in the driver's license application process. Two data elements in identity verification remain unchanged with virtually every applicant, and are thus arguably the most important to verify: birth data and data provided by digital photos via facial recognition. However, some states still do not want to expend bureaucratic energy to add EVVE's efficiencies and anti-fraud value into their driver's license application process. Instead, states claim compliance with the 18 material security benchmarks of REAL ID even without including digitized vital records checks into their identity verification processes. Technically, they are correct; REAL ID required the digitization of birth records and identity verification, and funded the EVVE program, but did not require the states to connect EVVE to the driver's license application process. However, the overall intent, and indeed as the federal government is finding, of birth record digitization is to add immense value to assuring accurate identity verification in a timely manner.


"The Federal Office of Personnel Management ran their current paper birth record procedures against EVVE. While it took the paper method 42 days to return a result on average, it took EVVE 10 seconds."

The installation of EVVE – which provides connectivity, matching, and security of data exchange – is currently federally paid for under REAL ID for a total of $3.8 million. However, many states still need to backfill and digitize at least some birth records back to 1945. In addition, nearly all states need to have their birth records cleaned up so that better "matching" can occur between names elsewhere in systems and the birth records. Some states already have good matching – North and South Dakota are in the high 90 percentile, but other states can be as low as 70 percent match rates merely due to how their records were initially digitized.

A standardization process for digitizing and linking birth records also needs to occur. NAPHSIS has estimated that cost at about $86 million. The cost to digitize death records back to 1945 and then link those death records to clean birth records is estimated to cost another $16 million. Altogether, to fully digitize, clean-up, and link all the birth and death records in the U.S. would only cost $102 million. Considering the benefits to the federal government that EVVE is already providing in protecting against fraud in the Social Security Administration, in public health, potentially in welfare, and on our borders – not to mention the driver's license issuance processes vital records digitization was initially developed to hone – $102 million seems a small price to pay for keeping identity thieves, criminals, and terrorists from easily assuming identities by using stolen or fraudulent vital records.

The tiny EVVE office was started in 2005. In five years it has developed and deployed vital records verification to over half the states, and has begun helping other states clean up their records. Interestingly, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act's Sec. 7211, "Minimum Standards for Birth Certificates" (see text below), authorizes federal grant programs to fund states to "meet federal standards" and "match birth and death records." Unfortunately, that authorization to appropriate ran out in 2009. A new Congress may well decide that authorization should be reinstated, and this time, be appropriated.

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From the INTELLIGENCE REFORM AND TERRORISM PREVENTION ACT OF 2004:

SEC. 7211. MINIMUM STANDARDS FOR BIRTH CERTIFICATES.
(a) DEFINITION.-In this section, the term ''birth certificate''
means a certificate of birth-
(1) for an individual (regardless of where born)-
(A) who is a citizen or national of the United States at birth; and
(B) whose birth is registered in the United States; and
(2) that-
(A) is issued by a Federal, State, or local government agency or authorized custodian of record and produced from birth records maintained by such agency or custodian of record; or
(B) is an authenticated copy, issued by a Federal, State, or local government agency or authorized custodian of record, of an original certificate of birth issued by such agency or custodian of record.
(b) STANDARDS FOR ACCEPTANCE BY FEDERAL AGENCIES.-
(1) IN GENERAL.-Beginning 2 years after the promulgation of minimum standards under paragraph (3), no Federal agency may accept a birth certificate for any official purpose unless the certificate conforms to such standards.
(2) STATE CERTIFICATION.-
(A) IN GENERAL.-Each State shall certify to the Secretary of Health and Human Services that the State is in compliance with the requirements of this section.
(B) FREQUENCY.-Certifications under subparagraph
(A) shall be made at such intervals and in such a manner as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, with the concurrence of the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Commissioner of Social Security, may prescribe by regulation.
(C) COMPLIANCE.-Each State shall ensure that units of local government and other authorized custodians of records in the State comply with this section.
(D) AUDITS.-The Secretary of Health and Human Services may conduct periodic audits of each State's compliance with the requirements of this section.
(3) MINIMUM STANDARDS.-Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall by regulation establish minimum standards for birth certificates for use by Federal agencies for official purposes that-
(A) at a minimum, shall require certification of the birth certificate by the State or local government custodian of record that issued the certificate, and shall require the use of safety paper or an alternative, equally secure medium, the seal of the issuing custodian of record, and other features designed to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or otherwise duplicating the birth certificate for fraudulent purposes;
(B) shall establish requirements for proof and verification of identity as a condition of issuance of a birth certificate, with additional security measures for the issuance of a birth certificate for a person who is not the applicant;
(C) shall establish standards for the processing of birth certificate applications to prevent fraud;
(D) may not require a single design to which birth certificates issued by all States must conform; and
(E) shall accommodate the differences between the States in the manner and form in which birth records are stored and birth certificates are produced from such records.
(4) CONSULTATION WITH GOVERNMENT AGENCIES.-In promulgating the standards required under paragraph (3), the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consult with-
(A) the Secretary of Homeland Security;
(B) the Commissioner of Social Security;
(C) State vital statistics offices; and
(D) other appropriate Federal agencies.
(5) EXTENSION OF EFFECTIVE DATE.-The Secretary of Health and Human Services may extend the date specified under paragraph (1) for up to 2 years for birth certificates issued by a State if the Secretary determines that the State made reasonable efforts to comply with the date under paragraph
(1) but was unable to do so.
(c) GRANTS TO STATES.-
(1) ASSISTANCE IN MEETING FEDERAL STANDARDS.-
(A) IN GENERAL.-Beginning on the date a final regulation is promulgated under subsection (b)(3), the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall award grants to States to assist them in conforming to the minimum standards for birth certificates set forth in the regulation.
(B) ALLOCATION OF GRANTS.-The Secretary shall award grants to States under this paragraph based on the proportion that the estimated average annual number of birth certificates issued by a State applying for a grant bears to the estimated average annual number of birth certificates issued by all States.
(C) MINIMUM ALLOCATION.-Notwithstanding subparagraph (B), each State shall receive not less than 0.5 percent of the grant funds made available under this paragraph.
(2) ASSISTANCE IN MATCHING BIRTH AND DEATH RECORDS.-
(A) IN GENERAL.-The Secretary of Health and Human Services, in coordination with the Commissioner of Social Security and other appropriate Federal agencies, shall award grants to States, under criteria established by the Secretary, to assist States in-
(i) computerizing their birth and death records;
(ii) developing the capability to match birth and death records within each State and among the States; and
(iii) noting the fact of death on the birth certificates of deceased persons.
(B) ALLOCATION OF GRANTS.-The Secretary shall award grants to qualifying States under this paragraph based on the proportion that the estimated annual average number of birth and death records created by a State applying for a grant bears to the estimated annual average number of birth and death records originated by all States.
(C) MINIMUM ALLOCATION.-Notwithstanding subparagraph (B), each State shall receive not less than 0.5 percent of the grant funds made available under this paragraph.
(d) AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS.-There are authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary for each of the fiscal years
2005 through 2009 such sums as may be necessary to carry out this section.
(e) TECHNICAL AND CONFORMING AMENDMENT.-Section 656 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (5 U.S.C. 301 note) is repealed.