IGs: Watch those Social Security numbers

Fifteen inspectors general this month told the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency that federal agencies are lax in overseeing the use and disclosure of Social Security numbers stored in agency databases.

Some agencies, they said, are allowing contractors free access to such private information before their background checks are completed or after they stop working within the government.

The Social Security Administration's inspector general undertook the survey at the request of the Senate Governmental Affairs' Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.

'An individual's Social Security number is often the last line of defense against identity theft,' Governmental Affairs chairwoman Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement about the report. Click here for a PDF of the report.

The 15 IGs interviewed personnel within their agencies and observed contractor activities. They noted such practices as unlocked file cabinets and sensitive records lying on desks or shelves after working hours.

Of the 15 agencies surveyed, only the Environmental Protection Agency had adequate controls, the IGs concluded. They found one or more areas of weakness at the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and Treasury; Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.; IRS; Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Office of Personnel Management; Railroad Retirement Board; Small Business Administration; and SSA.

The General Accounting Office's May 2002 assessment of Social Security number safety had said all levels of government use and exchange individuals' numbers frequently for many purposes such as benefits, debt collection, statistics and taxation.

GAO said the 1974 Privacy Act requires government bodies that collect the numbers to:
  • Tell individuals whether disclosure is voluntary or, if mandatory, under which law or authority.

  • Tell individuals what use will be made of their numbers.

  • In the 2002 report, GAO found 32 percent of federal agencies were not following the first requirement, and 21 percent were not following the second.


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