Johnson: into the sunset for SSDI

He’s at it again

Congressman Sam Johnson (R-Texas) seems to think that the Social Security Death Index is the worst thing that ever happened in the world of identity theft.

HR2720bUnfortunately for genealogists, Johnson isn’t just any member of Congress. He’s the chairman of the Social Security subcommittee of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

And he’s out to kill the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) — officially known as the Death Master File (DMF) — just as he tried to do in the last session of Congress.

He’s just being a little sneakier about it.

Johnson and a co-sponsor, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-California), introduced a bill, H.R. 2720, last week, “the Alexis Agin Identity Theft Protection Act of 2013,” named after a little girl whose Social Security number was stolen by identity thieves after her tragic death from cancer.1 It’s the fifth bill introduced in this session of Congress to limit the SSDI, joining:

H.R. 295, the “Protect and Save Act of 2013,” introduced by Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Florida), to close the SSDI for up to three years after a person’s death to everyone except those certified to have “a legitimate fraud prevention interest in accessing the information.”2

H.R. 466, the “Social Security Death Master File Privacy Act of 2013,” Introduced by Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Massachusetts), to bar any access by any member of the public to the social security account number of any deceased person — no matter how long ago that person died.3

H.R. 531, the “Tax Crimes and Identity Theft Prevention Act,” sponsored by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Florida) to close the SSDI for up to two years after a person’s death to everyone except those certified to have “a legitimate fraud prevention interest in accessing the information.”4

S. 676, the “Identity Theft and Tax Fraud Prevention Act of 2013,” sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), to close the SSDIO for two years after a person’s death to everyone except those certified to have “a legitimate interest in preventing fraud or unauthorized financial transactions” and certain others.5

Reading through this newest bill, you might get the impression that Johnson’s position has softened. There’s actually language in H.R. 2720 that would authorize the disclosure of information “concerning individuals whose date of death occurred at least 3 calendar years prior” to the date of the request.6 And it sounds like it has the same kind of certification system of the other bills (limited to those with financial interests in the data).7

Don’t be fooled.

Johnson has been an unrelenting foe of public access to the SSDI and has specifically targeted genealogists as The Bad Guys in the fight against identity theft. Hearings held by his subcommittee last year were specifically designed to make genealogists the scapegoat while deliberately keeping the genealogical community from having a fair chance to present our views.

And — like his bill last term — this bill by Johnson will, if passed, do what all the other bills don’t: close public access to the SSDI completely, forever and a day, amen. Because buried in the bill is this innocuous-sounding language: “Subparagraphs (C) through (H) of section 205(r)(7) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 405(r)(7)) (as amended by subsection (a)) shall cease to be effective on January 1, 2019…” And here’s what Johnson’s own press release says that will do:


So if adopted, Johnson’s bill would shut down access to the SSDI to everybody during the three years after a person’s death except those certified to have a financial need for the information. And after 2019, the Death Master File — the DMF — what we know as the SSDI — would stop being made public completely.

Action on all these bills will probably pick up in the fall when Congress returns from its summer vacation. Stay tuned.


  1. H.R. 2720, 113th Congress, 1st sess., ( : accessed 22 July 2013).
  2. H.R. 295, 113th Congress, 1st sess., ( : accessed 22 July 2013).
  3. H.R. 466, 113th Congress, 1st sess., ( : accessed 22 July 2013).
  4. H.R. 531, 113th Congress, 1st sess., ( : accessed 22 July 2013)
  5. S. 676, 113th Congress, 1st sess., ( : accessed 22 July 2013)
  6. §2, H.R. 2720, 113th Congress, 1st sess., ( : accessed 22 July 2013).
  7. Ibid.
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42 Responses to Johnson: into the sunset for SSDI

  1. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    America—the Land of Freedom—where elected and appointed officials consider the public—those who vote them into office—the bad guys!! Delightful scenario isn’t it?

  2. Nancy says:

    Seems to me that being able to easily find out that the person associated with a particular SSN was dead would help STOP identity theft – not enable it.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Wouldn’t you think somebody in Congress would understand that using the SSDI to prevent fraud would work a whole lot better? Sigh…

      • Ann Lamb says:

        In fact, that is even state in the Wikipedia article on the SSDI:
        “Given the growing problem of identity theft and the importance of the Social Security number as a personal identifier in the United States, it might seem unusual that these identifiers are released publicly. However, because the documents held by the Social Security Administration are government records, it is required to make the information public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).[citation needed] In fact, the Death Master File is used to prevent fraud so that no one can steal the identity of a dead person, and take out a credit card or a bank loan in a dead person’s name.”

  3. Pingback: Genealogical Privacy » Bill introduced to “sunset” the SSDI

  4. Ann Lamb says:


  5. GR Gordon says:

    If Congressman Johnson really wants to do something that will ctually help to prevent identity theft, he should take action to stop Medicare from using senior citizens’ social security numbers as their Medicare ID numbers. This practice means that all senior citizens’ social security numbers must be revealed to numerous clerks working in the biling offices of every doctor’s office, medical lab, therapist, hospital or nursing home from which a senior receives health related services, including independent companies to which the health care providers may outsource their billing and collection work. This practice has resulted in the healthcare industry becoming fertile ground for identity thieves, with thousands of cases of identity theft originating there in recent years. Private insurers were required to abandon the use of social security numbers as health insurance ID numbers years ago in order to protect the people they insure from this risk, and the US military has also ceased to use social security numbers as serial numbers to identify military personnel for much the same reason. Medicare has supposedly been “studying” the issue for years, but has yet to come up with a concrete plan for making any kind of change, even as the gigantic baby boom generation starts to flood into the system. It’s an absolute disgrace.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There is legislation introduced this session to address that — whether it is comprehensive — or even workable — remains to be seen.

    • KH Barry says:

      The military may not use SSNs as serial numbers any longer. However, it’s on the service member’s ID. And a dependent’s ID is even better – it has the service member’s SSN AND the dependent’s SSN! So tell me again how the government is trying to protect these numbers?

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        That’s one of the inconsistencies that makes this a smoke-and-mirrors issue. Closing the SSDI makes no sense whatsoever.

  6. Cyndy Bray says:

    I’d like your permission to send todays post to my representatives in congress. I’ve written them and Mr. Johnson before. Got no response from him and at least one Senator didn’t seem to get what I was saying. Got a response from her that was really off the topic.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Absolutely, Cyndy — but if they won’t read and they won’t think, there’s not much we can do to make them…

  7. Kenneth H. Ryesky says:

    As the title implies, this particular bill has a patron saint and martyr, the late Alexis Agin.

    The man behind the curtain on this one is Alexis’s father, Jonathan Eric Agin, an eloquently spoken trial attorney who seems absolutely convinced that (1) The availability of the DMF/SSDI was the cause of the expropriation of his deceased daughter’s identity (never mind that she received extensive medical treatments, which entail the exposure of numerous SSNs and other personal info to numerous low-salaried, often temporary employees); and (2) The IRS’s missteps in the matter were relatively minor in comparison to the public availability of the DMF/SSDI (subsequent developments have placed into serious question the notion of the IRS’s infallibility, along with the soundness of its internal procedures for processing its data).

    Mr. Agin has enlisted Mr. Johnson in his jihad to shut down the DMF/SSDI. In fact, when introducing the bill on the House floor, Mr. Johnson effectively acknowledged Mr. Agin’s (not-so) hidden hand in the legislation, in apparent transgression of some House rule against references to gallery spectators, of whom Mr. Agin was one.

    Conspicuous by its absence from the bill text is any reference to the IRS or the Treasury Department. Any real countermeasures to tax fraud identity theft must directly involve the IRS.

    And now that the SSDI is behind a pay wall which can track who accesses which record, the identity thieves are migrating away from dead babies and going to living people of all ages, whose SSNs are available from a plethora of sources (and will become even more widely available as Obamacare progresses towards full implementation).

    – Ken Ryesky

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yes, Jonathan Agin was the key witness in Rep. Johnson’s anti-genealogist hearings last year, and he is definitely the moving force here. You can’t help but have your heart ache thinking about his loss of his little girl and his horror at seeing her identifying information misused. But this is clearly a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and doesn’t begin to address the real issues of closing loopholes at the IRS and controlling the misuse of Social Security numbers as identifiers far beyond what they were meant to be.

  8. So very frustrating. The SSDI has been perhaps the most effective tool for finding families of soldiers who are still unaccounted for from past conflicts. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve turned to it over the past 14 years. And what’s especially sad is that Sam Johnson was a POW. You’d think he would care about those who weren’t fortunate enough to make it home.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It certainly does make it hard to fathom, Megan. He can’t possibly be as clueless as he seems to be about the implications of closing the SSDI. This has to be willful.

  9. Elizabeth H. says:

    I have about the newest senators (Markey and Warren) and Representative (Kennedy) so I don’t know how much influence they have. I can’t even find contact information for Senator Markey yet. I did send this link to Senator Warren and Rep. Kennedy, and will continue to periodically send them links to these blog posts that explain the situation so well. If everyone who reads this would do so, perhaps someone would listen…maybe?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Keeping them constantly advised that you’re a genealogist… and you vote … is a Very Good Idea!

  10. Pingback: The SSDI | AARON HILL’S NOTEBOOK

  11. Ya gotta love Congress…latest genius idea is to stop home delivery of mail…extremely convenient for senior citizens and the disabled population…
    Maybe they could cut out some of the perks we pay for???
    NAH–never happen!
    SSDI as a means to find information on lost relatives for genealogy? Maybe if it benefitted our elected officials…
    FRUSTRATING to say the least!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Why not show your Congress member how it CAN benefit people? Educate the representative to how it’s used, every day, for example, in repatriating military remains and the like!

  12. Bob says:

    As a newly-repatriated Texan, I just sent my objections to Rep. Barton (TX-6). I hope it was OK to include a link to the discussions on LG. I just pray our congressmen read their email more diligently than they read the laws they pass.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Feel free at any time to forward any of the materials from this blog to any member of Congress who needs educating, Bob!

  13. I have just mailed (yes, by snail) a letter to Representative Adam Schiff expressing my feelings about closing or limiting access to the SSDI. The letter includes some material revised from language recommended by the Records Access Project that Judy referred to earlier on this blog. I will be posting the content of that letter on Facebook later today in case anyone wants a template on which to base their own letters.

  14. Skip Murray says:

    Oh Sigh sigh sigh!!!!!!!!! I so wish this guy would go away. Will help spread the word as much as I can, working lots of hours the next for days. I will get my letters written and sent, one way or another. Thank-you so much for keeping us aware. ~ Skip

  15. Judy, thank you so much for staying “on the case” and for sharing with us what these bills actually say. The real kicker is in the last sentence. I’ve heard that’s typical for this kind of sneaky legislation.

  16. C. Gorniak says:

    You already have to pay to access the SSDI now so what is the difference? Before they outsourced it to some private company I was going to correct some dates on my parents info – but then the private company got a hold of the whole thing so the info will stay ‘wrong’ forever. I’ll be damned if I pay for any information that ‘belongs’ to my family anyway.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      What you don’t seem to understand is that if the SSDI is closed, you will not get this information at all.

  17. Bruce Duncan says:

    Just a couple of comments from an outsider (Canada). First, it would be interesting to hear from US Law Enforcement as to the % of reported identity theft crimes that can be traced to the SSDI/DMF. When this type of crime was just getting started, 50+ years ago, the source of much of the info was cemeteries. Should these Senators be looking at closing this source too? And, secondly, how difficult would it be for the Social Security Administration to pick up on someone using the SSN of a deceased person?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Bruce, I assume your questions are rhetorical, since the first recorded case of identity theft was probably Jacob and Esau in the Bible — and they didn’t try to fix that by closing records! It should be easy to craft control systems, but not nearly as easy as saying “we closed the records so we don’t need to do anything more!”

  18. Sarah Caldwell says:

    It’s all of a piece with Congressmen suggesting that Americans refuse to answer the very questions they APPROVED to be in the census–the interesting questions that we love to find in the old records.

  19. Lisa Douglas says:

    Even WHEN Social Security Administration KNOWS someone else is using your number they do NOTHING. Time for a TRULY secure SS card not a piece of paper!

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