Social Security Numbers:

SSNs Are Widely Used by Government and Could Be Better Protected

GAO-02-691T: Published: Apr 29, 2002. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 2002.

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Barbara D. Bovbjerg
(202) 512-5491


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

The Social Security numbers (SSN), originally created in 1936 to track workers' earnings and eligibility for Social Security benefits is now used for many other purposes by both government and private sectors. The growth in electronic record keeping and the availability of information over the Internet, combined with the rise in identity theft, have heightened public concern about how their SSNs are being used. Federal agencies use SSNs to manage records, verify the eligibility of benefit applicants, collect outstanding debts, and do research and program evaluation. GAO found that federal laws designed to protect SSNs are not being followed consistently, Moreover, courts at all levels of government and offices at the state and county level maintain records that contain SSNs for the purpose of making these records available to the public. Recognizing that these SSNs may be misused, some government entities have taken steps to protect the SSNs from public display. At the same time, however, some government entities are considering making more public records available on the Intranet. Ease of access to electronically available files could encourage more information gathering from public records on a broader scale than possible previously.

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