Social Security Numbers:

Subcommittee Questions Concerning the Use of the Number for Purposes Not Related to Social Security

HEHS/AIMD-00-253R: Published: Jul 7, 2000. Publicly Released: Jul 7, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the usage of the social security number (SSN) for purposes not related to social security and the implication of restricting such usage, focusing on: (1) whether the SSN should become a national identifier; (2) whther it is feasible to enact, administer, and enforce a law that restricts the use of SSNs; (3) how have SSN proof requirements changed over time; (4) does the public benefit from the widespread use of SSNs and the sharing of personal information; (5) whether a private business can decline to provide service to someone who refused to disclose his or her SSN; (6) what are the possible effects on businesses of restricting their use of SSNs; (7) how has the high-tech economy affected SSN use; (8) why information brokers need people's SSNs; and (9) whether another identifier would take its place should the use of SSNs be restricted by federal law.

GAO noted that: (1) the SSN has become a "de facto" identifier used by federal and state governments; (2) widespread use of the SSN beyond its original purpose has raised privacy concerns; (3) while privacy concerns should not be discounted, it is important to note that the use of SSNs to link individuals to information about them enhances the administration of federal and state programs, makes credit more accessible to consumers, and allows medical care to be integrated across providers and insurers: (4) whether a law regulating the overall use of SSNs is needed depends on a number of factor's including: the extent to which such a law could effectively curb identity theft and address privacy concerns; (b) how additional restrictions on the use of SSNs might hamper government and businesses' ability to conduct routine business; and (c) the feasibility of administering and enforcing such a law would depend on how restrictive it was and its scope--whether it was intended to change existing practices or limit uses of the SSN beyond those currently practiced; (5) the Social Security Administration collects only certain information about applicants for SSNs, and the documentation required as proof of this information has changed over time; (6) no federal law imposes broad restrictions on businesses' use of SSNs; (7) consequently, businesses that request SSNs as a condition for receiving services may deny such services to individuals who refuse; (8) limits on the use of SSNs could make it harder for health care service providers to track patients' medical histories, make it less easy for employers to do background checks, and lessen the certainty with which credit information could be matched to specific individuals; (9) in 1997, 13 of the self-identified leaders in the information brokerage industry agreed to limit their disclosure of the SSNs they obtain from nonpublic sources to those customers who have legitimate uses for this information, such as law enforcement officials; (10) GAO's work to date has not included assessing the uses of SSNs within the high-tech economy or the effects of their restricted usage on electronic-Commerce; (11) information brokers buy personal information, amass it in databases, and then resell it to clients; (12) however, some of the information they buy is already available to the public; and (13) if the SSN were not available for identity concerns, some other mechanism for doing the same would eventually take its place.

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