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Closer to limits?

We’re losing ground in the fight to keep open access to the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (DMF), known to the genealogical community as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

True, there haven’t been any more hearings recently on Capitol Hill where one official after another takes a swipe at the evil genealogists who have the audacity to want public access to the SSDI.

We haven’t been overtly attacked — lately at least — just because we happen to believe that actually combatting fraud would be a better idea than locking records away from public view. Or because we think that having the IRS actually use the records to check the validity of tax returns before sending out billions of dollars in fraudulent refunds is better than throwing out the public’s right to records access.

But that doesn’t mean things are going our way in Washington, D.C. Quite the contrary. And all the signs point to the fact that we’re just not getting our message across.

The first sign that things are still very dicey on this issue came on June 30th, when the National Taxpayer Advocate issued its Report to Congress: Fiscal Year 2013 Objectives and proclaimed:

we strongly support legislation to restrict public access to the DMF. However, we believe the SSA has at least a reasonable basis for seeking to limit public access to the DMF. By waiting for legislation that may or may not pass, we unnecessarily expose taxpayers to potential harm. For this reason, in FY 2013 we will continue to encourage the SSA to act on its own to restrict public access to the DMF.1

What’s particularly bad about the report is that there’s no reference to this being a temporary restriction, for only a period of three years after a person’s death, as National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson had advocated earlier. The absence of that limiting language is ominous.

Then just two weeks ago Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) shot off a letter to the Social Security Administration calling for restrictions on access to the SSDI.2 Casey’s letter expressed his “understanding” that there was “a proposal by the Social Security Administration to restrict the release of the death master file to entities that have both a legitimate need for these data and the capabilities to secure the information,” and he asked for “the status of this proposal, a list of any impediments to moving forward with the proposal and a timeline for implementation.”3

Note the absence of any language suggesting that the records be closed only for a short time. And note that there isn’t any way that individual genealogists or genealogy records services are going to be included as “entities that have … the capabilities to secure the information.”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, two more bills were introduced in Congress just in the last 10 days to limit access to the SSDI. One, S. 3234, introduced on July 25th, would bar disclosure of SSDI information “with respect to any individual who has died at any time during the calendar year in which the request for disclosure is made or the succeeding 2 calendar years.”4 The other, H.R. 6205, introduced just last week, calls for a ban on public access to the SSDI “with respect to any individual who has died at any time during the previous two calendar years in which the request for disclosure is made or the succeeding calendar year.”5

Under these measures, then, genealogists would lose access to the SSDI for approximately three years. The only exceptions in the proposals are for persons specially certified to get access, and it isn’t at all clear how certification would work for forensic genealogists — the folks who need access to help in legal proceedings, in repatriation of the remains of American service members, and so much more.

These aren’t horrible bills, as these bills go. Heaven knows there’s worse out there; there’s another bill that was introduced last year by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) that would bar access to the SSDI forever, to everyone, without any exceptions.6

But these bills do show just how we’re losing ground. How? The Senate bill just introduced was sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. And it was Senator Nelson who, just a year ago, introduced another similar bill — S. 1534 — that would only restrict access to the SSDI “during the calendar year in which the request for disclosure is made or the succeeding calendar year.”7 So even with Sen. Nelson, we’ve lost a year of access.

Now I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as long as the real needs of forensic genealogists are fully met, the rest of us can certainly live with a 24- to 36-month delay in SSDI access if that’s what it takes to (a) give the IRS time to ensure that the Social Security numbers of the recently deceased can’t be abused by identity thieves 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. We as a community are as anxious to see an end to the misuse of this information as any other Americans.

But what we’re seeing is a shift even among those whose earlier positions were more favorable to us. The movement is towards more restrictions and longer lag times, and we simply can’t stand by and do nothing. Because doing nothing is going to cost us access to these records, and if we lose access to these records, it’s a sure bet more access losses will follow.

There’s a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”8 For us, as genealogists, the price of our right to access public records is our vigilance.

We have simply got to get Up! Off our duffs! and make our voices heard.


Image by Rob Shenk via Creative Commons license

  1. National Taxpayer Advocate, Report to Congress: Fiscal Year 2013 Objectives, 30 June 2012, online PDF file at 12 ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  2. See Blake Ellis, “Buy a dead person’s identity from Social Security for $10,” CNN Money, posted 19 Jul 2012 ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  3. Press release, Office of Senator Robert Casey, “Casey Reveals: Lax Fed Rules Allow Identity Thieves To Obtain Other Americans’ Social Security Numbers for As Little As $10,” ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  4. § 9, S. 3432, 112th Congress, 2nd sess., ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  5. § 7, H.R. 6205, 112th Congress, 2nd session, ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  6. § 2, H.R. 3475, 112th Congress, 1st session, ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  7. § 9, S. 1534, 112th Congress, 1st sess., ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  8. There’s no proof Jefferson actually said it. See “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Quotation),” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, ( : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
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