Personal Privacy in an Information Society. The Social Security Number


The Commission's mandate suggests that the Privacy Protection Study Commission make a study of:

the use of social security numbers, license plate numbers, universal identifiers and other symbols to identify individuals in data banks and to gain access to, integrate, or centralize information systems and files. [Section 5(c)(1)(C) of P. L. 93-5 79]

In accordance with this suggestion, the Commission undertook such a study, but decided to limit its empirical study to the use of the Social Security number (SSN). There is more public concern about the SSN than any other identifier and second only to names, the SSN appears to be the most widely used label 1 in America . The Commission's findings, however, apply to any widely used system of labelling individuals; its SSN study is a case study of the advantages and disadvantages of any commonly used label.

There are essentially three basic ways to identify a person-by his physical attributes (e.g., color of hair and eyes, voiceprints, fingerprints); by a possession (e.g., passport with a photograph); and by a label (e.g., name, SSN, address). This study covers only the third because the Privacy Act, the Commission's mandate, focuses primarily on the use of labels to identify individuals.