Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens. Issuance of Social Security Numbers

07/01/1973

The report of the Social Security Number Task Force1 identified the need to improve the integrity of the SSN for some uses now required by Federal law. Steps have been initiated during the last two years to decrease the likelihood that any individual will be assigned more. than one SSN without the knowledge of the Social Security Administration. They include: improved procedures for verifying the identity of each applicant for an SSN; issuance of SSNs only from the central office of the Social Security Administration rather than from its 1,000 field offices; implementation of a process- that will provide comprehensive, automated screening of applications for SSNs; and the establishment by Section 208 of the Social Security Act2 of a penalty for fraudulently furnishing false information regarding one's identity in order to obtain an SSN. There is good reason to expect that the combined effect of all these actions will be to improve significantly the integrity of the SSN.

Enumeration of School Children. The Social Security Number Task Force recommended that the Social Security Administration "should embark on a positive program of enumerating [issuing SSNs to] school children at the ninth-grade level, with concurrent establishment of proof of age and identity." We have given long and careful thought to this recommendation. Our first inclination was flatly to oppose it as an action that would promote the use of the SSN as a de facto SUI. After further deliberation, and exploration of relevant issues with the Commissioner of Social Security, we decided to endorse the Task Force recommendation with two important qualifications. Specifically, we recommend

(4) That the Social Security Administration undertake a positive program of issuing SSNs to ninth-grade students in schools, provided (a) that no school system be induced to cooperate in such a program contrary to its preference; and (b) that any person shall have the right to refuse to be issued an SSN in connection with such a program, and such right of refusal shall be available both to the student and to his parents or guardians.

Children in the ninth grade have reached the age when they are likely to seek part-time or summer employment and need an SSN for Social Security program and Federal income tax purposes. Indeed, many young people obtain SSNs for such purposes before they reach ninth grade. Under Section 137 of the Social Security Amendments of 1972, many children who receive certain Federal cash benefits will also be assigned SSNs before they reach ninth grade. Since a program of ninth-grade enumeration is likely to be consistent with the needs and convenience of most young people, it is not likely to seem coercive. Moreover, our recommendation is designed to prevent any coercion.

Both the Task Force Report and the Commissioner of Social Security have indicated that a program of ninth-grade enumeration would offer the Social Security Administration an opportunity to inform students about the Social Security program and their rights and responsibilities in relation to it. We urge that any such student briefings include information about their rights and responsibilities with respect to uses of the SSN. We also note the observations made in the Task Force Report, and reiterated by the Commissioner of Social Security, that ninth-grade enumeration is advantageous to the Social Security Administration on a cost-benefit basis.

Finally, our inquiries and discussions with Social Security Administration representatives convinced us that a positive program of ninth-grade enumeration would contribute significantly to enhancing the integrity of the SSN. The contribution to this end might appear somewhat greater if the program enumerated children at the time of their first enrollment in school, as authorized by the Congress .in Section 137 of the Social Security Amendments of 1972. However, we strongly recommend

(5) That there be no positive program of issuing SSNs to children below the ninth-grade level, either at the initiative of the Social Security Administration or in response to requests from schools or other institutions.

A positive program of issuing SSNs to all children at school entry has little to recommend it. It would almost surely seem coercive, since the proportion of children in kindergarten or first grade who need an SSN is small. These children are too young for a significant educational contact with the Social Security program. Most important, such a mass enumeration program would be a very significant further step toward making the SSN a de facto standard universal identifier-a step there are no compelling reasons to take.

Enumeration of Beneficiaries of Federally Funded Programs. As we noted in Chapter VII (pp. 120-121), Section 137 of the Social Security Amendments of 1972 requires the Secretary of HEW to take affirmative measures to issue the SSN as widely as practicable.

to any individual who is an applicant for or recipient of benefits under any program financed in whole or in part from Federal funds including any child on whose behalf such benefits are claimed by another person.

This provision, read literally, could well provide the authority for establishing a standard universal identifier. Yet as we understand it, this provision was included in the legislation in the narrow context of improving the administration of public assistance programs. It is a technical provision in a large and complicated piece of legislation (the printed Public Law runs to 165 pages) in which other very controversial issues occupied the attention of the Congress and the public. This particular provision was not the subject of public hearings.

The conditions under which Section 137 became law did not allow for adequate consideration of an action that has the potential of driving America toward an SUI. We therefore believe that the Secretary has an obligation to use the authority granted in Section 137 only in the most limited way consistent with the mandate-as a tool for improving the administration of public assistance programs. The potential consequences are too dangerous to allow an SUI to be established without wide and careful public consideration and full assessment of the potential consequences.

Specifically, we recommend

(6) That the Secretary limit affirmative measures taken to issue SSNs pursuant to Section 205 (c)(2) (13)(i)(II) of the Social Security Act, as amended by Section 137 of Public Law 92-603, to applicants for or recipients of public assistance benefits supported from Federal funds under the Social Security Act.

We further recommend

(7) That the Secretary do his utmost to assure that any future legislation dealing with the SSN be preceded by full and careful consideration and well advertised hearings that elicit substantial public participation.

We would stress once again that the SSN in its present form is not a satisfactory standard universal identifier. Even with the steps that have been taken to improve the integrity of the SSN, the SSN cannot provide a guarantee of identity unless it is coupled with some stable feature of physical identification, such as fingerprints. In its present form, therefore, adoption of the SSN as an SUI would not lead to all the advantages of improved program administration that proponents of its widened use anticipate, e.g., to "identify" welfare beneficiaries. If the Committee had to choose today between a true SUI, complete with fingerprinted identification cards on the one hand, and something less than ultimate efficiency in the administration of public assistance programs on the other, we would rather risk the latter; we think the American public would too. The steps being taken to strengthen the integrity of the SSN can lead to significant improvement in the administration of public assistance, while our recommendations will check the drift of the SSN toward becoming a de facto SUI. Until effective safeguards against the abuse of computer-based personal data systems have been established, and until there has been full public debate of the desirability of an SUI, this is the point at which the situation must be held in check.