St. Louis - This spring, while most Americans were filling out the short census form, 21,000 households received a special form with an extra question. It was a test to see if Americans would voluntarily write in their Social Security numbers.
Supporters call the experiment a worthy trial of new data- gathering methods. And many Americans, who regularly give their Social Security numbers to store clerks and government officials, may see nothing ominous in such requests.
But critics charge it's another bureaucratic step toward a national identity tag. While some say that Washington already has a great deal of information about its citizens, critics say the bureaucracy is so convoluted that it's difficult to access it.
A national ID could make tracking someone's history frighteningly efficient, especially in an age when disparate private and government databases can be linked and mined so easily. This year, with privacy concerns already swirling around the census, critics' warnings could attract widespread attention.
"It certainly is a move toward a national ID requirement, which we seem to be moving toward in tiny bureaucratic steps," says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal in Providence, R.I. The Social Security number "has become akin to a domestic passport that we decried in places like South Africa."
"It's a bigger issue than many people think," adds Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas. "Because of the nature of big government, to operate and be efficient ... [it] has to keep tabs on people. The concern over privacy is a reflection of the kind of government we have."
The Census Bureau is interested in the Social Security number as a classification system because it's more accurate than names and addresses. And Census officials say the number could serve as the key to unlock information held by other government agencies.
The Social Security number could broaden dramatically the use of administrative records in all levels of government. For example, if someone refused to answer Census questions on income, the bureau could look up Social Security records.
"Administrative records could be used to get more complete information," says Steven Jost, the bureau's associate communications director. Although this technique could be used in the 2010 census, "it's not a likelihood," he adds.
This spring's test - officially, the "Social Security Number, Privacy Attitudes, and Notification Experiment" - tried various wordings to see how citizens would react. …