Social Security:

Government and Commercial Use of the Social Security Number Is Widespread

HEHS-99-28: Published: Feb 16, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 16, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed how the social security number (SSN) is used, focusing on: (1) federal laws and regulations requiring or restricting SSN use; (2) how extensively the private and public sectors use SSNs for purposes not required by federal law; and (3) what businesses and governments believe the impact would be if federal laws limiting the use of SSNs were passed.

GAO noted that: (1) no single law regulates the overall use of SSNs; (2) the Social Security Act, which created the social security programs for which the SSN was developed, did not require the Social Security Administration (SSA) to devise SSNs; (3) however, once SSA created and began using SSNs to help administer its programs, Congress recognized the universal nature of the SSN and subsequently enacted laws requiring SSN uses for some purposes not related to social security; (4) federal laws now require that SSNs be used in the administration of some programs, including the federal personal income tax program; the Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, Food Stamp, and Child Support Enforcement programs; and state commercial driver licensing programs; (5) some of these laws impose restrictions on SSN use relating to the programs or activities involved; (6) no federal law, however, imposes broad restrictions on businesses' and state and local governments' use of SSNs when that use is unrelated to a specific federal requirement; (7) the report additionally addresses businesses' and governments' uses of SSNs for purposes not required by federal law; (8) officials of all of the organizations GAO reviewed--businesses that sell personal information, those that offer financial and health care services, and state personal income tax and driver licensing agencies--routinely choose to use SSNs as a management tool to conduct their business or program activities; (9) credit bureau and state personal income tax officials, for example, said they use the SSN as a primary record identifier for internal activities, such as maintaining individual consumer credit histories and identifying income tax filers; (10) all the organizations said they used SSNs to facilitate data exchanges necessary to their business; (11) they use SSNs to obtain information to assess credit risk, locate assets, or to ensure compliance with their program rules and regulations; (12) GAO reports officials of the organizations as saying their ability to conduct routine internal activities and data exchanges could be adversely affected if the federal government passed laws that limited their use of SSNs; and (13) however, given the public's concern about the disclosure of SSNs, officials of businesses that sell personal information and driver licensing agencies said that some members of their industry have taken steps to limit disclosure.

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