Social Security:

Government and Other Uses of the Social Security Number are Widespread

T-HEHS-00-120: Published: May 18, 2000. Publicly Released: May 18, 2000.

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Cynthia Maher Fagnoni
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GAO discussed the usage of the Social Security number (SSN), focusing on: (1) the ways that the federal government uses SSNs and current restrictions on these uses; (2) the nonfederal purposes for which the number is used; and (3) what businesses and state governments believe the effect would be if federal laws limiting the use of SSNs were passed.

GAO noted that: (1) the federal government, state 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 they generally 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 certain federal laws; (6) for example, by sharing information about applicants for the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the Social Security Administration (SSA) can identify individuals whose benefits should be reduced, such as those in prison; (7) in addition, 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 state governments and private businesses 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 steps to limit their disclosure of SSNs.

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