Social Security Administration:

Improved Agency Coordination Needed for Social Security Card Enhancement Efforts

GAO-06-303: Published: Mar 29, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 29, 2006.

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) has issued more than 430 million Social Security numbers (SSN) and cards since the Social Security program began in 1935, of which an estimated 300 million belong to living number holders. SSNs have a key role in verifying individuals' authorization to work in the United States, but SSN cards are also vulnerable to theft and counterfeiting. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 requires that SSA consult with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), form a task force, establish standards for safeguarding the SSN and card, and provide for implementation by June 2006. Concerns about unauthorized workers and the use of counterfeit documents led the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to ask that GAO (1) review SSA's progress to safeguard the SSN and enhance the card as required under the Intelligence Act, (2) identify key issues to be considered before enhancing the card, and (3) outline the range of options available to SSA for enhancing the card.

SSA has implemented several provisions of the Intelligence Act intended to help safeguard the SSN and card, but slow action to form the interagency task force may limit card enhancement efforts. SSA has implemented measures to limit the number of replacement cards, verify birth certificates for applicants under age 1, and improve the Enumeration at Birth process. SSA has taken action to include death indicators and initiated work on fraud indicators for Social Security accounts in its database. SSA set specific tasks and timelines to address card enhancement options and made a preliminary decision to improve the current paper card and issue the improved cards only to new card applicants. Although the card plays a significant role in verifying individuals' authorization to work, SSA did not consult DHS about these initial tasks or the formation of the interagency task force until November 2005 and did not convene the task force until late January 2006. This allows less than 6 months for the task force to consider critical issues that affect card enhancements before establishing new safeguards. The difficulty of counterfeit-proofing the card, the role the card has in determining employment eligibility, and ongoing enhancements to state drivers' licenses and identification cards are critical issues to consider before enhancing the Social Security card. Counterfeit protections were first added in 1983 but older versions of the card remain valid. Millions of older cards never established employment eligibility because SSA did not require that everyone present evidence of age, identity, or citizenship status until 1978. Prior GAO work shows that the employment verification process is jeopardized by document and identity fraud, the wide array of documents that can be used, weak worksite enforcement, and flaws in the voluntary electronic verification system. DHS is currently considering reducing the number of acceptable documents used to verify employment eligibility. Changes to drivers' licenses and identification cards under the Real ID Act will improve verification of identity in the employment process, since states must verify the SSN and legal presence upon application. However, states are not required to check or note employment eligibility. Once these critical issues are considered, a variety of options exist for enhancing the Social Security card, ranging from enhancing the paper card, to adding machine-readable or biometric features such as photographs and fingerprints, to eliminating the card entirely. Additionally, the costs of implementing each option will vary. Each option provides different alternatives for improving the ability to verify employment eligibility. The type of card and distribution method chosen will have a significant effect on costs and the agency's workload. For example, if cards require a fingerprint or photograph, additional infrastructure will be required to obtain these features; reissuing new cards to the estimated 300 million living cardholders or staggering issuance to certain groups, such as those who change jobs, would require a different investment of resources. However, decisions about the card's role will be crucial in determining costs.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: As the SSA-led task force develops ways to protect the Social Security card, it is important that the card meets the needs of DHS in the employment verification process; therefore, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Commissioner of Social Security should work together to resolve the weaknesses of the Social Security card in proving employment eligibility. Specifically, they should consider the millions of cards that do not prove employment eligibility, the inability to tie the card to the cardholder, flaws in the voluntary employment verification system, improvements to identification cards by the Real ID Act, and the current ease of counterfeiting the card.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS reported that its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit concurred with GAO regarding the importance of collaborating with the Social Security Administration (SSA) and participating in the SSA-led task force to enhance the usefulness of the card for employment verification, and to strengthen the card's security. DHS and SSA, through the interagency taskforce, advocated for the inclusion of DHS' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services unit as a participant in the task force. The Interagency Task Force developed several changes designed to enhance the security of the Social Security Card, some of which were made public while others were not publicized in response to the Intelligence Act. For example, the card issuance date was added to the front of each SSN card; signing instructions were added; and a latent image, unique spiral design and special ink color were all added to prevent duplication. In addition, to enhance employment verification, a change was made to distinguish the last name of the individual on the card by displaying the last name on a separate line below the first and middle name.

    Recommendation: As the SSA-led task force develops ways to protect the Social Security card, it is important that the card meets the needs of DHS in the employment verification process; therefore, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Commissioner of Social Security should work together to resolve the weaknesses of the Social Security card in proving employment eligibility. Specifically, they should consider the millions of cards that do not prove employment eligibility, the inability to tie the card to the cardholder, flaws in the voluntary employment verification system, improvements to identification cards by the Real ID Act, and the current ease of counterfeiting the card.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA reported that the agency formed an interagency agency taskforce with DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Department of State and the Government Printing Office, as required by the Intelligence Act, to establish requirements to further improve the security of Social Security numbers (SSN) and cards. The task force met from January through April 2006 and developed standards for safeguarding Social Security cards from counterfeiting, tampering, alteration and theft; requirements for verifying documents submitted for the issuance of replacement cards; and actions to increase enforcement against the fraudulent use or issuance of SSNs and cards. Because the law requires that the card be made of banknote paper, the task force was technically limited to considerations for improving a paper card. Effective October 2007, SSA made several changes to the card, six of which were made public: 1) the card issuance date was added to the front of each SSN card; 2) signing instructions for adults and children were added to the perforated card attachment; 3) the existing marbleized background pattern was replaced with a unique, non-repeating spiral design, which is computer-generated and difficult to duplicate; 4) a latent image was added to the SSN card face that is visible only when the document is viewed at specific angles; 5) a unique ink color mixture was used that flows from blue to aqua; and 6) color shifting inks were added to the face of the card. SSA also changed the card to help employers by distinguishing the last name of the individual on the card by displaying the last name on a separate line directly below the first and middle name. SSA is continuing to work with DHS on issues related to employment eligibility and an electronic verification program (Basic Pilot).

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