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What we need, not what we want

Social Security records access

The Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) has finally taken a clear, straightforward, simple stand on the issues involving identity theft on one hand and continued access to the Social Security Death Master File (SSDMF) or, as we know it, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) on the other. It has chosen to draw the line in the sand based not on what we all as genealogists may want, but rather based on what we really need.

And RPAC — a joint committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies — needs our help in coming up with an equally clear, straightforward, simple explanation of just what it is that we need.

There’s no question but that we all want the clock to roll back to the halcyon days when we could find the SSDI readily available, for free, on open websites. That’s not about to happen. And we all want continued unfettered access to the SSDI whenever and wherever we want. In my judgment, that’s not going to happen either. We’d even settle for the politicians finding somebody else — like maybe the identity thieves themselves! — to blame for identity theft. And it’s an absolute sure bet that’s not in the cards.

Facing facts

We have to face facts: we’re everybody’s favorite punching bag right now. Even our community joy over the release of the 1940 census has been marred by inaccurate and, frankly, rather nasty media reports of the dire consequences about to befall America’s senior citizens and all of our privacy rights because of the information contained in the census reports.1

In short, we’re between a rock and a hard place when it comes to records access, and I for one believe our choices are simple: we either give back some of what we might want in return for keeping what we need … or we run an unacceptable risk of losing access altogether.

A compromise

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the vast majority of us simply don’t need instant access to the SSDI. We can certainly live with a delay for the year of a person’s death and one more calendar year. If we had to, we could even live with the 36-month blackout period the National Taxpayer Advocate recommends if that’s what it takes to (a) give the IRS time to ensure that the Social Security numbers of the recently deceased couldn’t be abused by identity thieves while estates and executors wrap up required tax and other filings and (b) give the Social Security Administration time to ensure that everybody whose Social Security number is on the SSDI is, in fact, really dead.

But there are members of our community for whom that delay is intolerable. That’s where we get into what we need, rather than what we want. And so RPAC itself and its voting members have all submitted statements to the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility & Economic Growth for the record of its hearing on Senate Bill 1534.2 Each of the statements — by Frederick E. Moss for RPAC; Patricia A. Oxley for the Federation of Genealogical Societies; Janet A. Alpert for the National Genealogical Society; and Jan Meisels Allen for the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies — agreed that:

While we advocate all genealogists should have immediate access to the SSDI, we would support the two year delay in access as proposed in S 1534-and if necessary the third year that National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson advocated during her oral testimony during the March 20th hearing. This support is with the caveat that certain genealogists are to be eligible for certification for immediate access. These genealogists include: forensic genealogists, heir researchers, and those researching individual genetically inherited diseases.3

Moss’ statement further reminded the subcommittee:

There are real costs associated with limiting access to public records. … Any delay or redaction undermines the utility of the Death Master File in achieving the fraud prevention purposes for which it was created…. The filters currently being developed and employed have the potential of slamming the door on this particular form of fraud. Thieves will move on. By the time additional legislation could be put in place, the only users likely to be affected will be legitimate, law-abiding citizens. The unintended consequences of these measures will almost certainly exceed any possible benefit. We are in danger of re-fighting the last war.4

Oxley’s statement also included a reminder — that, in the past, identity thieves went to cemeteries and collected information on deceased children to get their birth certificates to commit fraud:

The most effective response … was to verify the appropriateness of the request for a duplicate birth certificate by first checking their files of death certificates… If found, the duplicate birth certificate would only be issued if prominently annotated to reflect the fact that the person was deceased. Inter-state compacts with adjoining jurisdictions allowed the vital records custodians of the birth records to screen the death records of neighboring states before responding to a fraudulent request. Efforts continue to expand the ability to access the death records of a broader range of states to be used to thwart this form of abuse.

As a society, we did not choose to restrict access to cemeteries.5

Alpert’s statement began to categorize those who need immediate access to the SSDI:

Examples of those who need immediate access to the SSDI include:

A. Genealogists who work in the field of forensic genealogy.

1. Helping the military in the repatriation of the remains of servicemen lost in previous military conflicts by identifying and locating their living relatives.

2. Helping county coroners by identifying the relatives of unclaimed persons.

B. Heir genealogists assist attorneys who need to find missing heirs to settle estate cases.

C. Genealogists who are researching a genetically inherited disease in their family where time is of the essence in locating extended family members who may have inherited a gene and need to be tested and treated as quickly as possible. We put in this category families where there may be a premature cause of death such as heart failure in a young adult.6

Allen similarly categorized those who need access now:

1. Forensic genealogists. These are genealogists who work, for example with the Department of Defense in identifying next of kin of deceased military personnel from prior conflicts and working with local, county and state coroners to help find the next of kin of deceased in order for the deceased to have a proper burial; and

2. Heir researchers who are working to prove or disprove that someone is eligible as part of a deceased’s estate or Native American tribal funds;

3. Those researching individual genetically inherited diseases to help current and future generations obtain necessary medical testing to determine if they currently need prophylactic treatments. We are aware that medical researchers may already be eligible for certification, but many work with aggregate data and the individual needs to know about their own medical genetically inherited history..7

Our input essential

Nobody likes the idea of giving up any access, to the SSDI or any record, and all of the statements made that clear. But if we have to compromise — and we do — the leaders agreed that it was essential that genealogists work with Congress to help define those for whom access can’t be delayed. Oxley specifically noted that “the coordinated language represents our attempt to begin the process of gathering input from our colleagues in the broader genealogical community and seek to develop a workable definition addressing urgency. This past week we have initiated this dialogue. We will seek input from and the support of the broader genealogical community as quickly as possible.”

What that means, specifically, is our input. Yours, and mine. The Senate bill has a provision in § 9(b) for a certification program so that some people with “a legitimate fraud prevention interest in accessing the information” could get access to it earlier. We need to be able to tell the Senate committee exactly who in the genealogical community needs that same immediate access, to be included in that certification system.

If you can legitimately sit there and say you have a pressing need for SSDI access on an ongoing basis, RPAC needs to hear from you now. The email address is Tell them who you are, what work you do, how you define that work, who you work for. Particularly if you’re involved in family health history research, RPAC needs your guidance in defining the groups it will fight to have included in the certification the Senate bill provides. What sets you apart from folks like me, for example, who deal mostly with those who have long passed on?

What’s possible

Remember that the alternative to this Senate bill is not free and unfettered public access to the SSDI. No, the real alternative is the bill proposed by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) which would close off the SSDI from public access forever.8

“Politics,” Otto von Bismarck is reported to have said, “is the art of the possible.”9 At a time when the broader genealogical community can organize itself to make 37 million hits on a census image website, but can’t turn out 25,000 signatures for a petition that might help save access to the Social Security Death Index, what’s possible doesn’t include everything we might want. But if we’re reasonable and forthright in our position, it might just include most — maybe even all — of what we need.


  1. See Adam Marcus, “The census’ broken privacy promise,” CNET:Security, posted 2 Apr 2012 (;bc : accessed 4 Apr 2012). See also Ron Scherer, Staff writer, “1940 Census data: A treasure trove for con artists?,” Christian Science Monitor, posted 3 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2012).
  2. S. 1534, 112th Congress, 1st sess., (http:// : accessed 19 Mar 2012).
  3. SSDI Update–RPAC recomendation,” RPAC Blog, posted 27 Mar 2012 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2012).
  4. Statement for the Record Hearing on Tax Fraud by Identity Theft: Status, Progress, and Potential Solutions, Submitted by Frederick E. Moss, JD, LL.M., RPAC Blog, posted 2 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2012).
  5. Statement for the Record Hearing on Tax Fraud by Identity Theft, Part 2: Status, Progress, and Potential Solutions, Submitted by Patricia A. Oxley, President, RPAC Blog, posted 2 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2012).
  6. National Genealogical Society, Statement for the Record, Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth, Written Comments on Provisions of S 1534 to Prevent Identity Theft and Tax Fraud Prevention Act, Submitted by Janet A. Alpert, RPAC Blog, posted 2 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2012).
  7. Statement for the Record, U.S. Senate Finance Committee, Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility And Economic Growth, Tax Fraud By Identity Theft, Part 2: Status, Progress, and Potential Solutions, Written Comments on Provisions Relating to Social Security Administration’s Death Master File, Also Known Commercially As The Social Security Death Index, Submitted by Jan Meisels Allen, RPAC Blog, posted 2 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2012).
  8. H.R. 3475, 112th Congress, 1st session, (http:// : accessed 19 Mar 2012).
  9. Wikipedia (, “Otto von Bismarck,” rev. 25 Feb 2012.
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