Social Security:

Use of the Social Security Number is Widespread

T-HEHS-00-111: Published: May 9, 2000. Publicly Released: May 9, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the usage of the social security number (SSN), focusing on: (1) federal laws and regulations directing the number's use; (2) the non-federal purposes for which the number is used; and (3) what businesses and state governments believe the impact would be if federal laws limiting the use of SSNs were passed.

GAO noted that: (1) the federal government, states and local governments, and private businesses all widely use SSNs; (2) in the case of the federal government, a number of laws and regulations require the use of SSNs for various programs, but some also impose limitations on how these SSNs may be used; (3) however, no federal law imposes broad restrictions on businesses' and state and local governments' use of SSNs when that use is unrelated to a specific federal requirement; (4) governments and businesses frequently use SSNs to identify and organize individuals' records; (5) some may also use SSNs to exchange information with other organizations to verify information on file, to coordinate benefits or services, or to ensure compliance with federal laws; (6) for example, by sharing information about applicants for the Supplemental Security Income program, the Social Security Administration can identify individuals whose benefits should be reduced, such as those in prison; (7) some information brokers use SSNs to retrieve the large amount of personal information on individuals that they collect and sell; (8) public concern over the availability of personal information has encouraged some to consider ways to limit using SSNs to disclose such information; (9) however, officials from both private businesses and government have stated that if the federal government passed laws that limited their use of SSNs, their ability to reliably identify individuals' records would be limited as would their subsequent ability to administer programs and conduct data exchanges with others; and (10) nonetheless, some state agencies and businesses have voluntarily taken measures to limit their disclosures of SSNs.

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