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Social Security Numbers: Private Sector Entities Routinely Obtain and Use SSNs, and Laws Limit the Disclosure of This Information

GAO-04-11 Published: Jan 22, 2004. Publicly Released: Feb 24, 2004.
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In 1936, the Social Security Administration (SSA) established the Social Security number (SSN) to track workers' earnings for Social Security benefit purposes. However, the SSN is also used for a myriad of non-Social Security purposes. Today, public and private sector entities view the SSN as a key piece of information that enables them to conduct their business and deliver services. However, given the apparent rise in identity crimes as well as the rapidly increasing availability of information over the Internet, Congress has raised concern over how certain private sector entities obtain, use, and safeguard SSN data. In previous reports, we discussed the benefits of government and commercial entities using SSNs. We also examined how certain private sector entities and the government obtain, use, and safeguard SSNs. This report provides additional information on private sector uses of SSNs. The Chairman, Subcommittee on Social Security, House Committee on Ways and Means, asked that GAO examine the private sector use of SSNs by businesses most likely to obtain and use them including information resellers, consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), and health care organizations. Specifically, our objectives were to (1) describe how information resellers, CRAs, and some health care organizations obtain and use SSNs and (2) discuss the laws and practices relevant to safeguarding SSNs and consumers' privacy. GAO makes no recommendations.

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Consumer protectionFederal lawIdentity verificationInformation disclosurePrivacy lawPrivate sector practicesSocial security numberState lawSocial security numbersInformation resellers