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Something amazing happened yesterday. In both a good way… and a not-so-good way.

A respected mainstream newspaper — the Great Grey Lady herself — the New York Times — published an article on access to the Social Security Master Death File — what we know as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) — that (a) didn’t say public access to the SSDI was the worst idea since liver-flavored bubblegum and (b) didn’t blame identity theft on genealogists.1

Instead, the article noted that medical researchers are having a harder time doing their jobs because the Social Security Administration not only stopped including new state death records in the publicly-available SSDI but, worse, deleted four million death records from the public file in 2011. And it quoted a spokesman for Social Security as basically saying that compiling a good, useable, complete master death list was “not our job.”2

Even more amazing is the fact that the article quoted the president of the Consumer Data Industry Association — the credit agencies who are supposed to be trying to help lenders, banks, insurers and others prevent identity theft and fraud — that what Social Security is doing is making it harder to detect identity thieves.3

No foolin’. If there’s no good, easy, inexpensive way to determine that someone has died and his or her Social Security number should be considered inactive (meaning you shouldn’t give that person a mortgage, a job or a federal income tax refund), it’s a sure bet fighting identity theft isn’t going to get any easier.

That was the good news. Balanced information and no blaming the genealogists.

But, of course, the news couldn’t be all good. Not on an issue like this. No, what was even more amazing — and not in a good way — was to read the comments people posted to the article. By midnight last night, nearly 100 comments had been posted… and some of them were just plain disheartening. They certainly show what we’re all up against as we fight to try to keep public access to the SSDI.

A number of commenters just couldn’t seem to grasp that the “D” in “SSDI” stands for death. They kept complaining about being required to disclose their own Social Security numbers, by its use on Medicare cards, for example.

One said she found it “confusing that in the age of identity theft we suddenly need to have our social security number as an identifier when for years it was never asked for or displayed anywhere. The loss of privacy continues, as well as the intrusion of technology and organizations into our existence.”4

Another said “Medicare itself is complicit by continuing to print SS numbers on Medicare cards which technically you are supposed to carry with you.”5

Yet another said the same thing: “With all the identity theft going on these days, I don’t understand why Medicare still continues the practice of putting Social Security recipients Social Security numbers on their Medicare insurance cards, instead of some random number.”6

Some realized that the SSDI contained only information about those who have passed on, and still thought disclosing Social Security numbers even of the dead was wrong.

One noted that “on many but not all records, the Social Security number of the deceased was available. It seems to me that SSN numbers are not necessary.”7

Another had found an old friend on “a list of deceased persons that also listed their social security numbers. I couldn’t believe that something like this had even been published and knew the global identity thieves were salivating upon seeing this information.”8

Another found her father’s and grandmother’s social security numbers online and declared: “Limiting any of this info online is long overdue. It should never have been available online or anywhere else in the first place. Ever.”9

And yet another took the position that “It is high time that we as a society protect those who are deceased as well as those who are living.”10

Now some of these folk may be reachable in a careful and reasoned discussion on the issues. But there was at least one with whom, quite frankly, I suspect no reasoned discussion is possible. He wrote:

I hope the congressman who wants to tighten the records even further gets his way. I don’t want strangers from the government getting personal information about me in life or in death. I could not care less if this hampers “researchers”. They can conduct research if they wish with people who consent. I won’t be consenting to be part of their so called research. I’m not interested. I’m interested in protecting my privacy and rights from the endless parasites who work in big government and academia. People I despise. Nobody from the government can be trusted. If you choose to work for government you’re a parasite socialist traitor to freedom and I don’t want to know you.11

Sigh… it never gets any easier, does it?


  1. Kevin Sack, “Researchers Wring Hands as U.S. Clamps Down on Death Record Access,” New York Times, online edition, 8 Oct 2012 ( : accessed 8 Oct 2012).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., comment, posted 9:42 p.m. by maryann
  5. Ibid., comment, posted 4:25 p.m. by BNC.
  6. Ibid., comment, posted 4:06 p.m., by N.Cohen.
  7. Ibid., comment, posted 9:22 p.m., by zullym.
  8. Ibid., comment, posted 3:44 p.m., by Babbs6.
  9. Ibid., comment, posted 3:26 p.m., by Julie.
  10. Ibid., comment, posted 9:10 p.m., by UnOwen.
  11. Ibid., comment, posted 2:37 p.m., by Ken Maron.
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