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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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