SSDI Hearings: OUCH!

Public access to SSDI took it on the chin in Thursday’s House hearings

Hooboy. Talk about a stacked deck. Yesterday’s hearings on the future of public access to Social Security death information before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security were Not Good for public access. Not Good At All.

The Subcommittee chair, Sam Johnson (R-Texas), started things off. After talking about how Social Security death information first became public after a lawsuit in 1980, he charged in:

But what made sense thirty years ago, no longer makes sense today. Identity thieves who get their hands on a Social Security number can reap instant rewards, while the rightful owner has no idea what has happened.

With 84 million listed individuals and 1.5 million new individuals added each year, it appears that this File has become a resource for criminals seeking to capitalize on Americans’ identities, particularly the identities of deceased children.

And it went downhill from there.

Lined up against us and against public access to the Social Security death master file — the data that underlies the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) that we use — was a star-studded group.

The Commissioner of Social Security told the Subcommittee chairman that problems with identity theft and with privacy interests won’t be so much of a problem in the future “because, hopefully, some version of (the) bill will pass this year.” That was Rep. Johnson’s bill he was talking about. The bill designed to end public access to the SSDI completely.

The Social Security Administration’s Inspector General told the Subcommittee that “to the extent possible, public access to the DMF should be limited to that required by law.”

The father of a child who died of cancer told the Subcommittee about the pain of discovering that his late daughter’s social security number had been stolen and used by someone to file an income tax return.

And consumer advocates told the Subcommittee about “news articles” and “anecdotal evidence” showing that people are harmed when con artists access Social Security death information online.

To be fair, not every single one of the six witnesses who testified called for shutting off all access to the Social Security death master file. Stuart K. Pratt of Consumer Data Industry Association spoke well about the need of the entire financial system to have access to the data to prevent fraud. Banks, insurance companies, healthcare providers, consumer credit agencies and more use the information each and every day to verify eligibility. And, Pratt emphasized, there is no real evidence that the death master index (or online versions of the SSDI, for that matter, I would add) is a contributing factor in identity theft or fraud and no alternative resource for the financial system to use to prevent identity theft or fraud. But Pratt limited his statements to the access businesses need. He made no mention of public access.

Only one other witness, Dr. Patricia W. Potrzebowski of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, even touched on the need for quick access to electronic data to prevent fraud, and her comments were in the context of an entirely closed system where not even other agencies can get underlying data — just a report that a document presented as proof of identity did or didn’t match what was in the database.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, we genealogists got targeted specifically.

The Commissioner of Social Security went out of his way to tell the Subcommittee that “Trying to keep up with individual FOIA requests for information on millions of deceased individuals is a resource issue at a time when the agency is struggling to keep up with rising demand for services in a time of dwindling resources.” That’s a poke directly at folks like you and me who ask for copies of the SS-5 applications for a Social Security number that are so critical to us as genealogists. Notice that there’s not one word in there about the fact that each request is paid for by a not-insubstantial fee that offsets that resource issue.

And then came the body blow. The father who testified pointed the finger of blame directly at the genealogical community: “organizations hosting websites aimed at facilitating genealogical research, then make available the DMF for free to the public at large. It therefore is available to nearly anyone and perpetuates identity theft and fraud against the federal and state governments at astronomical levels.”

Brutal. Really brutal. To the point of making you think seriously about getting all genealogists to start saving their shekels so we could pool our resources and buy one last copy of the database… just in case…

The upshot? This opening skirmish tells us we’re in for a real fight on this. And don’t kid yourself. This is a fight we can easily lose. There are extremely powerful forces lined up on the other side, and there are extremely powerful arguments being made against SSDI access. The emotional punch by the father of that little girl as he testified isn’t going to be easy to counter.

Now I use that term “opening skirmish” deliberately: this one hearing is NOT the war, it’s just one battle. Having said that, however, I want to add that I’m personally convinced that this issue isn’t going to sit on the back burner. It’s going to move, and move quickly. This is an election year. “Protecting families of dead children” gets votes. “Helping genealogists” doesn’t.

So, I repeat, and repeat, and repeat: We’ve got to work together and we’ve got to work smart here. Doing nothing is not an option. By the same token, we’ll ruin whatever chance we may have of keeping any access if we go off half-cocked.

So, again, here’s the game plan:

Get the facts.

Go to the website of RPAC — the Records Preservation & Access Committee (a joint committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies) — and get the online guide on the SSDI. Read it carefully and thoroughly to educate yourself on the issues and the way to present them.

Understand the arguments.

We all need to clearly understand the points being made by the other side here. There are real concerns and real people with real issues. Don’t ever forget that. You can read all of the statements of all of the witnesses at these hearings online:

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
Jonathan Agin, father of a child whose Social Security number was stolen after her death
Stuart K. Pratt of the Consumer Data Industry Association
John Breyault of the National Consumers League
Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., Inspector General of the Social Security Administration
Dr. Patricia Potrzebowski of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems

If you’d rather watch the whole proceedings, there will be archived video of the hearings eventually on the Ways and Means Committee website if it isn’t there already.

Speak up (or at least get READY to speak up)!

Now I understand that RPAC says it isn’t calling for the genealogical community to mobilize and start contacting Congress yet. (Operative word: yet. I’m sure it will, and soon. So keep tabs on the RPAC blog for its recommendations.)

In my own view, however, it’s never too soon for us to start educating our own representatives (and remember: I think this issue is being fast-tracked by those who stand against access). At the very least, ask this question: does your local genealogical society have a relationship with your own Member of Congress? If not, why not?

Bottom line:

Public access to the SSDI is in very very real danger. Only working together and working smart gives us even a prayer of keeping critical information flowing freely. That, and maybe those shekels I mentioned…

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19 Responses to SSDI Hearings: OUCH!

  1. Dee Dee King says:

    Thanks for another great article, Judy! We must work for those compromises to ensure public access. There may also need to be “tiered access.” For example, those of us who work on cases with legal implications may need access to a version of SSDI that does not withhold deaths for a certain time period.

    Sometimes SSDI is the only resource we have to confirm deaths in heirship cases, militray repatriations, etc. Or to give us a hint that an heir or DNA donor may still be alive so that we may focus the research in the proper databases.

    Just this week the only sister of a serviceman was found in the SSDI, she died within the last year. The ability to show that minors are deceased is also important in heirship cases.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The bottom line here is “compromise.” Nobody in the genealogical community is foolish enough, or heartless enough, to demand unlimited access to all sorts of information without regard to the consequences to folks like the family of that little girl. My heart bled for that father and that family, listening to his testimony. His rights and concerns CAN be addressed, without throwing out the public access baby with the misuse bathwater. I just hope we have time to find that common ground. It’s there, no question it’s there… but Congress works in mysterious ways.

  2. Emily says:

    Sometimes a member of the public may want to be able to check to see if someone is deceased without staying in contact with that person’s family. For instance, if someone was in a bad marriage that lasted more than 10 years, the spouse is entitled to Social Security benefits; and the Social Security application asks for the Social Security number of the former spouse. In another situation, a Catholic divorces and remarries, but cannot receive communion or have their current marriage convalidated until the first spouse is deceased.

    I would like to see the SSDI remain open, but that the information is not published until the SSA has confirmation of the death (such as a death certificate), so that living persons are not unintentionally included.

    I would like to see the IRS running the Social Security numbers of dependents against the SSDI to see if anyone is claiming dead persons as dependents.

    I would like to see stronger methods in place to prevent fraudulent uses of the data, while still permitting innocent uses of the data.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      All reasonable positions, Emily — and much of what your suggesting is in the other bills on this subject. It’s Rep. Johnson’s bill that’s the real danger to public access: he wants it stopped. Completely. Forever.

  3. Dee Leonard says:

    you would think the goverment would have better things to worry about. This is sure to happen. Just like taking the place of burial off death record.
    So we can’t even take a picture of the grave stone. If everyone would do their job a little better, there won’t be so much fraud.

  4. Barbara says:

    They could make a file with all the deceased SS numbers. This file would be available to employers to run new hire’s to check for stolen SS numbers.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There are lots of methods for proper use of Social Security numbers. None of ‘em requires that genealogists give up all access.

  5. Lena Truster says:

    Seems that we as genealogists need the SSDI and the percent of problems using the old numbers are very very small. I believe MORE access to numbers to ensure that noone is using dead people numbers is the best avenue. This should definitely be checked everytime one applies for credit,job, or WELFARE. We can be wise and informed and keep this to a minimum. I found out this year that because my dad, born 1882, did not qualify for SS, there is no information kept under his number!! I have his SS# and a letter to my mother in 1948 saying he did not qualify when he died, but when I requested his application, I was told they were not kept if they did not qualify!!
    Let’s use the Freedom of Information act to our benefit. Get the identity theft down by using the SSDI.

  6. If it hadn’t been for the SSDI we would have never known my grandsons father was dead.

  7. Randy Clark says:

    After logging in to whitehouse.gov I’m unable to find the proper petition.

  8. Has anyone pointed out how many times the Social Security numbers of the living are used illegally on tax returns? It’s not the SSDI that’s the problem, it’s the IRS. If they never do anything to the people who repeatedly and illegally claim dependents, they will just keep claiming them, knowing there is never punishment.

    Unless they can prove that no acts of identity theft involving Social Security numbers ever occurred before the SSDI was available online, then their argument against the SSDI really shouldn’t stand. And what happens when they remove the recent numbers, or the whole database, and it doesn’t stop? Do we get it back? Do they admit they were morons? Doubtful.

    A small group of cancer victims’ numbers were used illegally. And they couldn’t trace that to anything but the SSDI? Really? After all the hacking and stealing information that makes the news, and how many times it doesn’t make the news, they couldn’t find any other connection between a dozen child cancer victims? Were there no other diseases responsible? What are the chances that a group of people (not all claimed by one person, were they?) would randomly search the SSDI and find recently deceased children under 18 to claim, and only find cancer victims?

    And I know I’m not the only one who sees the idiocy in the fact that they blame genealogists entirely for the problem but refuse to let us have even one representative in the hearings. We’re on trial without being allowed to defend ourselves. Seems like much of our government has completely lost touch with both reality and legality.

  9. Pingback: Notable Genealogy Blog Posts, 12 February 2012 « Planting the Seeds

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