SSN FAQ: Government requests for your SSN
by Chris Hibbert
last modified May 14, 2005
Many people are concerned about the number of organizations asking for their Social Security Numbers. They worry about invasions of privacy and the oppressive feeling of being treated as just a number. Unfortunately, I can't offer any hope about the dehumanizing effects of identifying you with your numbers. I can try to help you keep your Social Security Number from being used as a tool in the invasion of your privacy.
- Dealing with Governmen Organizations
Surprisingly enough, government agencies are reasonably easy to deal with; private organizations are much more troublesome. Few agencies are allowed to request the number, and all agences are required to give a disclosure complete enough that you can find the law that empowers them. There are no comparable Federal laws either restricting the uses non-government organizations can make of the SSN, or compelling them to tell you anything about their plans.
Some states have recently enacted regulations on collection of SSNs by private entities. (Usually in cases of consumers making payments with checks or credit cards.) With private institutions, your main recourse is refusing to do business with anyone whose terms you don't like. They, in turn, are allowed to refuse to deal with you on those terms.
Public schools that accept federal funds are subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (Also known as FERPA or the "Buckley Amendment") which prohibits them from giving out personal information on students without permission. There is an exception for directory information, which is limited to names, addresses, and phone numbers, and another exception for release of information to the parents of minors. There is no exception for Social Security Numbers, so covered schools aren't allowed to reveal students' numbers without their permission. In addition, public schools at all levels are bound by the requirements of the Privacy Act, (so they have to give a Privacy Act notice if they ask for a SSN). If they make uses of the SSN which aren't covered by the disclosure they are in violation.
Another basis on which to refuse to provide an SSN to a public school is a Supreme Court decision [Plyler v. Doe [457 U.S. 202 (1982)] that held that requiring SSNs from all students would discriminate illegally against any that were undocumented immigrants. Even if you are a citizen, this ruling prevents schools from requiring your Social Security Number.
According to The National Coalition of Advocates for Students (NCAS), schools are obligated to assign a number generated by the school to students without a Social Security Number. When schools request an SSN from an adult (e.g. in applying for a free lunch or breakfast program), if the adult has no number, he or she may simply indicate that fact, and no further questions may be asked, since, the Supreme Court decided, that might "chill" people's pursuit of their right to an education.
In addition, the Supreme Court ruling held that schools are limited in the actions they may take when encouraging students or parents to apply for Social Security Numbers. They must inform both students and their parents that it is up to them to decide whether to fill out the forms
NCAS (100 Boylston Street, Suite 737, Boston, MA 02116, 617-357-8507) has some literature on what information a school can ask you for based on this Supreme Court decision.
The university counsel for the University of North Carolina in Greensboro has a good short FAQ on the law on Universities using SSNs.
Some forms for applying for US Passports (DSP-11 12/87) request a Social Security Number, but don't give enough information in their Privacy Act notice to verify that the Passport office has the authority to request it. There is a reference to "Federal Tax Law" and a misquotation of Section 6039E of the 1986 Internal Revenue Code, claiming that that section requires that you provide your name, mailing address, date of birth, and Social Security Number. The referenced section only requires TIN (SSN), and it only requires that it be sent to the IRS (not to the Passport office). It appears that when you apply for a passport, you can refuse to reveal your SSN to the passport office, and instead mail a notice to the IRS, give only your SSN (other identifying info optional) and notify them that you are applying for a passport. Here is the postscript source for the letter that was used by one contributor. Another reader has converted the letter to Word for the Macintosh. I've now converted it to HTML as well. Other readers have also used this technique successfully.
I had received reports that a new version of the passport application fixed the problems described above. Apparently, these new applications asked for SSN, but stated that failure to provide it wasn't grounds to deny a passport. It warned that the SSN would be used to verify the other information on the form, and processing of the application might be delayed if the number was not provided.
There's another new version (DS-11 03-2005) available now at the State department's web site. It has a different notice that implies (in the same roundabout way) that the SSN is required by the abovementioned laws, and says passports will be refused if the number is not included. People have continued to report that using the letters provided by David Wise result in timely processing.
I applied for a renewal of my passport in July, 2000, and received a new passport in August. I used the 1997 version of the form for Renewal by Mail, which I obtained at the State department's web site, and sent a suitably modified version of Professor Wise's letter. (The letter assumes you are delivering the application to a postal clerk.)
The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 required all employers to collect social security numbers for everyone covered by their health plans, including all dependents. After not being pursued actively by the government for a few years, legislation (PL 104-226) was passed in October, 1996 repealing the Medicare and Medicaid Coverage Data Bank.
The Family Support Act of 1988 (Pub. L. 100-485) requires states to require parents to give their Social Security Numbers in order to get a birth certificate issued for a newborn. The law allows the requirement to be waived for "good cause", but there's no indication of what may qualify.
Section 1615 of the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 strengthened the requirement for taxpayers to report SSNs for dependents over one year of age when they are claimed as a deduction. (H.R.3448, became PL104-188 8/20/96.) The new law allows the IRS to treat listing a dependent without including an SSN as if it were an arithmetic error. This apparently means that the taxpayer isn't allowed to petition the tax court.
If you have suggestions for improving this document please send them to me firstname.lastname@example.org, or by sending snail mail to:
- Chris Hibbert, 1195 Andre Ave., Mountain View, CA 94040
Last modified May 15, 2005 01:41 AM