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Use of Social Security numbers is out of hand

Robert Gellman

Perhaps the most famous executive order in privacy history is No. 9397, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Nov. 22, 1943. It was intended for federal agencies that needed a new system of permanent account numbers for individuals. The president directed agencies to use the Social Security number exclusively.

It is tempting to say that this order resulted directly in the vast expansion of Social Security number use by the federal government, but that wouldn't be strictly true. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Social Security number really became entrenched as essentially a universal identifier. In 1961, the Civil Service Commission adopted the number as a federal employee identifier. Shortly thereafter, Congress mandated the use of taxpayer identification numbers, and the IRS decided to use the number, too.

Other major milestones in the Social Security number saga include the Veterans Administration's 1996 decision to use the numbers for hospital records and the Defense Department's 1967 adoption of them for military service numbers. Congress is just as zealous as the executive branch. In 1975, 1977 and 1981, laws mandated the use of the numbers for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps and school lunches, respectively.

The 104th Congress may have been the worst. It essentially mandated the use of the numbers on applications for professional, occupational, marriage and driver's licenses. Just for good measure, the number goes on divorce decrees, support orders and paternity determinations.

A complete list of federal and state agency uses of Social Security numbers would probably fill this paper. Usage is completely unregulated, and that is why you can buy just about anyone's number for a few dollars over the Internet.

So if the 1943 executive order isn't wholly responsible, it certainly kicked off the trend. A series of disconnected decisions by agencies and Congress has vastly increased its use. The goal is always to catch crooks, increase efficiency, prevent fraud or some other virtuous objective.

Whether the Social Security number has been successful in any of these objectives is a largely unexplored issue. For every program aided by use of the number, others were hurt.

It is a poor identifier for several technical and administrative reasons. Further, criminals use it as a tool in various endeavors, including welfare fraud, tax fraud and identity theft.

Congress attempted to restrict use of the number as part of the Privacy Act of 1974. It told federal, state and local governments that they could not require individuals to reveal their numbers as a condition of receiving a right, benefit or privilege.

Of course, a couple of years later, Congress passed another law that authorized several new uses, and more have since been authorized or mandated.

The public is clearly unhappy about the general reliance on Social Security numbers. In recent years, public pressure has resulted in new state laws prohibiting some uses of them while requiring records-keepers to offer alternatives. People are spooked about federal identification numbers. A discussion about adopting a new health identifier that began quietly last summer blew up into a national press frenzy and led to a congressional moratorium.

You cannot underestimate popular concern about identifier numbers. When I worked on Capitol Hill on privacy issues, objections to use of the numbers probably generated more letters and phone calls than any other single privacy issue. More recently, opposition from the religious right has intensified. Politicians increasingly listen to the public, and this explains the recent state laws restricting use of the numbers.

Too entrenched

The Social Security number is probably too embedded to be replaced any time soon. In any event, a cure might be worse than the disease of overuse. But it is always appropriate to stop making things worse.

An immediate action'albeit a largely symbolic one'would be to rescind Executive Order 9397. Just tell agencies that they are not required to use Social Security numbers any more. If they need an identifier, let them consider alternatives. Justify new uses of the number after public notice and comment. If nothing else, killing the authority to use the Social Security number certainly would raise a howl.

How about it, Mr. President? Why not rescind that executive order before someone in Congress beats you to it.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.

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