Social Security Administration: Disclosure Policy for Law Enforcement Allows Information Sharing, but SSA Needs to Ensure Consistent Application

GAO-03-919 Published: Sep 30, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2003.
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Highlights

Law enforcement agencies' efforts to investigate the events of September 11th increased awareness that federal agencies collect and maintain personal information on individuals such as name, social security number, and date of birth that could be useful to law enforcement. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is one of the country's primary custodians of personal information. Although the Privacy Act protects much of this information, generally, federal agencies can disclose information to law enforcement. However, determining when the need for disclosure takes priority over an individual's privacy is not clear. GAO was asked to describe (1) SSA's disclosure policy for law enforcement and how it compares with the Privacy Act and those of other federal agencies, (2) SSA's experience sharing information with law enforcement, and (3) law enforcement's experience obtaining information under SSA's policy.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration To help ensure consistent application of SSA's disclosure policy for law enforcement in all of its offices and to better assist law enforcement agencies making disclosure requests, the Commissioner of SSA should take steps to eliminate confusion about the agency's disclosure policy. These steps could include clarifying SSA's policy; providing additional or refresher training to staff; or delegating decision-making authority for law enforcement requests to specified locations such as the OIG, regional privacy coordinators, or other units that SSA determines would have expertise in this area.
Closed – Implemented
SSA makes instructions for the agency's disclosure policy for law enforcement available to the public and to law enforcement. The agency provides extensive instructions to its employees through the Program Operations Manual System (POMS) and the agency's regional offices Intranet sites. In addition, SSA reviewed its policy and revised the POMS sections that address law enforcement disclosures. Further, SSA reported that it is providing refresher training as appropriate to clarify SSA's disclosure policy.
Social Security Administration To help ensure consistent application of SSA's disclosure policy for law enforcement in all of its offices and to better assist law enforcement agencies making disclosure requests, the Commissioner of SSA should provide law enforcement with information on SSA's disclosure policy and procedures. For example, this information could be provided on its Web site, in informational pamphlets, or some other written format.
Closed – Implemented
The Social Security Administration (SSA) reviewed and revised its policy for disclosing information to law enforcement and published its policy in the Program Operations Manual System (POMS). The revised law enforcement and privacy policies are available to the law enforcement community and the public via SSA's Internet web site.

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