Keep an Eye on Who Gets Your Number: The Social Security Number Has Become the National Identification Code-One Fraught with Security Loopholes and Serious Implications for Privacy Rights. (Nation: Identity Theft)

By Cherry, Sheila R. | Insight on the News, July 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Keep an Eye on Who Gets Your Number: The Social Security Number Has Become the National Identification Code-One Fraught with Security Loopholes and Serious Implications for Privacy Rights. (Nation: Identity Theft)


Cherry, Sheila R., Insight on the News


U.S. attorneys in Oregon and that state's regional Social Security Administration announced the sentencing of Juventino Lira-Carmona, a Mexican national who had assumed the identity of a deceased American and used the decedent's Social Security number (SSN) to gain employment and illegally remain in the United States.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, Lira-Carmona was arrested after filing a false application for a U.S. passport. Officials reported that he was placed on probation for one year and remanded immediately into the custody of agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for removal to Mexico. Whether Lira-Carmona was in fact deported by the INS is anyone's guess.

Identity theft is on the rise, said Howard Beales, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. For calendar year 2001, the FTC's Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse database received more than 86,000 complaints from victims of ID theft, Beales told the panel. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), SSNs often are the "identifier" of choice among identity thieves.

Yet even as the FTC and consumer advocates seek to strengthen privacy protections, say security specialists, it appears that federal, state and local governments may be the weakest link in improper SSN disclosures. "In the course of using SSNs to administer their programs, and as employers, agencies sometimes display these SSNs on documents, such as program-eligibility cards or employee badges, that can be seen by others who may have no need for the SSN," the GAO reported in May.

The SSN has become one of the clearest examples of government "mission creep." When created in 1936, the SSN was presented as a unique identifier whose sole purpose would be to track the earnings of workers eligible to receive Social Security benefits. But, as explained by the GAO, on Nov. 25, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9397 expanding the use of the SSN for all federal agencies "to use identification systems for individuals, rather than set up a new identification system."

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC), a San Diego-based nonprofit that teaches consumers how to protect their personal privacy, advises citizens to release their SSNs only when absolutely necessary--as is required on tax forms, employment records and banking, stock and property transactions. "The SSN is the key to your credit and banking accounts and is the prime target of criminals," the PRC warns.

The PRC's Website advises: "If a business requests your SSN, ask if it has an alternative number which can be used instead. Speak to a manager or supervisor if your request is not heeded. Ask to see the company's policy on SSNs. If necessary, take your business elsewhere."

That is widely regarded as sagacity in the private sector. But similar care during a government interaction is likely to provoke a cold stare and a chilly reaction. "If the SSN is requested by a government agency, look for the Privacy Act notice," the site continues. "This will tell you if your SSN is required, what will be done with it and what happens if you refuse to provide it."

The purpose of the Privacy Act, the GAO reported in May, is to balance the government's need to maintain information about individuals with the rights of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy by federal agencies. Under the act, individuals can bring a civil action against a federal agency requesting the SSN if they believe that the agency has not complied with the Section 7 requirements and if this failure to comply results in an adverse effect on the individual.

Nevertheless, the GAO auditors found that although nearly all government entities surveyed collect and use SSNs for a variety of reasons, many reported they do not consistently provide individuals with information required by the Privacy Act. …

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