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Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

History and Significance of the Social Security Number

by Chris Hibbert

last modified January 9, 2004

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.

The advice in this FAQ deals primarily with the Social Security Number used in the US, though the privacy considerations are equally applicable in many other countries. The laws explained here are US laws. The advice about dealing with bureaucrats and clerks is universal.


Back to ToC . The Privacy Act of 1974

The Privacy Act of 1974 (Pub. L. 93-579, in section 7), which is the primary law affecting the use of SSNs, requires that any federal agency that requests your Social Security Number has to tell you four things:

  1. the authority (whether granted by statute, or by executive order of the President) which authorizes the solicitation of the information and whether disclosure of such information is mandatory or voluntary;
  2. the principal purposes for which the information is intended to be used;
  3. the routine uses which may be made of the information, as published annually in the Federal Register, and
  4. the effects on you, if any, of not providing all or any part of the requested information.
The Act requires state and local agencies which request the SSN to inform the individual of only three things:
  1. whether the disclosure is mandatory or voluntary,
  2. by what statutory or other authority the SSN is solicited, and
  3. what uses will be made of the number.
In addition, that section makes it illegal for Federal, state, and local government agencies to deny any rights, privileges or benefits to individuals who refuse to provide their SSNs unless the disclosure is required by Federal statute, or the disclosure is to an agency for use in a record system which required the SSN before 1975. ( 5 USC 552a note). So anytime you're dealing with a government institution and you're asked for your Social Security Number, look for a Privacy Act Statement. If there isn't one, complain and don't give your number. If the statement is present, read it. Once you've read the explanation of whether the number is optional or required, and what will be done with your number if you provide it, you'll be able to decide for yourself whether to fill in the number.

There are several kinds of governmental organizations (see the list in the Short History section) that usually have authority to request your number, but they are all required to provide the Privacy Act Statement described above. The only time you should be willing to give your number without reading that notice is when the organization you are dealing with is not a part of the government.

One weakness of the Priavcy Act is that it doesn't carry any penalties. ( Bob Gelman claims there are some that haven't been exercised in court.)

Back to ToC . Why to Resist Requests for Your SSN

When you give out your number, you are providing access to information about yourself. You're providing access to information that you don't have the ability or the legal right to correct or rebut. You provide access to data that is irrelevant to most transactions but that will occasionally trigger prejudice. Worst of all, since you provided the key, (and did so "voluntarily") all the information discovered under your number will be presumed to be true, about you, and relevant.

A major problem with the use of SSNs as identifiers is that it makes it hard to control access to personal information. Even assuming you want someone to be able to find out some things about you, there's no reason to believe that you want to make all records concerning yourself available. When multiple record systems are all keyed by the same identifier, and all are intended to be easily accessible to some users, it becomes difficult to allow someone access to some of the information about a person while restricting them to specific topics.

Unfortunately, far too many organizations assume that anyone who presents an SSN must be the owner. When more than one person uses the same number, it clouds up the records. If someone intended to hide their activities by using someone else's number, it's likely that it'll look bad on whichever record it shows up on. When it happens accidentally, it can be unexpected, embarrassing, or worse. How do you prove that you weren't the one using your number when the record was made?

Simson Garfinkel put it very well in an article for an "Inside Risks" column in Communications of the ACM in October, 1995. His article started with the paragraph

The problem with Social Security Numbers today is that some organizations are using these ubiquitous numbers for identification, others are using them for authentication, and still others are using them for both.
Simson went on to explain how the two uses are incompatible. I recommend the article. (This is a subscription site. If you can't access it, Simson has it online now, in PDF format. To access it, please click here.

Back to ToC. What You Can Do to Protect Your Number

It's not a good idea to carry your SSN card with you (or other documents that contain your SSN). If you should lose your wallet or purse, your SSN would make it easier for a thief to apply for credit in your name or otherwise fraudulently use your number. Some states that normally use SSNs as the drivers license number will give you a different number if you ask. If your health insurance plan uses your SSN for an ID number, it's probably on your insurance card. If you are unable to get the insurance plan to change your number, you may want to photocopy your card with your SSN covered and carry the copy. You can then give a health care provider your number separately.

Here are some suggestions for negotiating with people who don't want to give you what you want. They work whether the problem has to do with SSNs (your number is added to a database without your consent, someone refuses to give you service without getting your number, etc.) or is any other problem with a clerk or bureaucrat who doesn't want to do things any way other than what works for 99% of the people they see. Start politely, explaining your position and expecting them to understand and cooperate. If that doesn't work, there are several more things to try:

  1. Talk to people higher up in the organization. This often works simply because the organization has a standard way of dealing with requests not to use the SSN, and the first person you deal with just hasn't been around long enough to know what it is.
  2. Enlist the aid of your employer. You have to decide whether talking to someone in personnel, and possibly trying to change corporate policy is going to get back to your supervisor and affect your job. The people in the personnel and benefits departments often carry a lot of weight when dealing with health insurance companies.
  3. Threaten to complain to a consumer affairs bureau. Most newspapers can get a quick response. Ask for their "Action Line" or equivalent. If you're dealing with a local government agency, look in the state or local government section of the phone book under "consumer affairs." If it's a federal agency, your congressmember may be able to help.
  4. Insist that they document a corporate policy requiring the number. When someone can't find a written policy or doesn't want to push hard enough to get it, they'll often realize that they don't know what the policy is, and they've just been following tradition.
  5. Ask what they need it for and suggest alternatives. If you're talking to someone who has some independence, and they'd like to help, they will sometimes admit that they know the reason the company wants it, and you can satisfy that requirement a different way.
  6. Tell them you'll take your business elsewhere (and follow through if they don't cooperate.)
  7. If it's a case where you've gotten service already, but someone insists that you have to provide your number in order to have a continuing relationship, you can choose to ignore the request in hopes that they'll forget or find another solution before you get tired of the interruption.

Back to ToC . Is Someone Using Your Number?

There are two good places to look to find out if someone else is using your number: the Social Security Administration's (SSA) database, and your credit report. If anyone else used your number when applying for a job, their earnings will appear under your name in the SSA's files. If someone uses your SSN (or name and address) to apply for credit, it will show up in the files of the big three credit reporting agencies.

The Social Security Administration recommends that you request a copy of your file from them every few years to make sure that your records are correct (your income and "contributions" are being recorded for you, and no one else's are.) As a result of a recent court case, the SSA has agreed to accept corrections of errors when there isn't any contradictory evidence, SSA has records for the year before or after the error, and the claimed earnings are consistent with earlier and later wages. (San Jose Mercury News, 5/14, 1992 p 6A) Call the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213 and ask for Form 7004, (Request for Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement.) The forms are available online on the SSA's website. You can also pick up a copy at any office of the SSA.

Information about the credit reporting agencies is available in the Junk Mail FAQ, and various other privacy-related resources.

Back to ToC . Short History

Social Security numbers were introduced by the Social Security Act of 1935. They were originally intended to be used only by the social security program. In 1943 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9397 which required federal agencies to use the number when creating new record-keeping systems. In 1961 the IRS began to use it as a taxpayer ID number. The Privacy Act of 1974 required authorization for government agencies to use SSNs in their data bases and required disclosures (detailed below) when government agencies request the number. Agencies which were already using SSN as an identifier before January 1, 1975 were allowed to continue using it. The Tax Reform Act of 1976 gave authority to state or local tax, welfare, driver's license, or motor vehicle registration authorities to use the number in order to establish identities. The Privacy Protection Study Commission of 1977 recommended that EO9397 be revoked after some agencies referred to it as their authorization to use SSNs. It hasn't been revoked, but no one seems to have made new uses of the SSN recently and cited EO9397 as their sole authority, either.

Several states use the SSN as a driver's license number, while others record it on applications and store it in their database. Some states that routinely use it on the license will make up another number if you insist. According to the terms of the Privacy Act, any that have a space for it on the application forms should have a disclosure notice. Many don't, and until someone takes them to court, they aren't likely to change.

If you have suggestions for improving this document please send them to me, or by sending snail mail to:

Chris Hibbert, 1195 Andre Ave., Mountain View, CA 94040

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