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What to do when they ask for your social security number

Newsgroups: alt.privacy,misc.legal,news.answers,alt.society.civil-liberty,comp.society.privacy,misc.answers,comp.answers,alt.answers
Subject: Social Security Number FAQ
From: hibbert@memex.com (Chris Hibbert)
Date: Mon Jul 19 21:00:21 1993

Archive-name: ssn-privacy

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          What to do when they ask for your Social Security Number

                              by Chris Hibbert

                           Computer Professionals
                         for Social Responsibility

Many people are concerned about the number of organizations asking for their
Social Security Numbers.  They worry about invasions of privacy and the
oppressive feeling of being treated as just a number.  Unfortunately, I can't
offer any hope about the dehumanizing effects of identifying you with your
numbers.  I *can* try to help you keep your Social Security Number from being
used as a tool in the invasion of your privacy.

Surprisingly, government agencies are reasonably easy to deal with; private
organizations are much more troublesome.  Federal law restricts the agencies
at all levels of government that can demand your number and a fairly complete
disclosure is required even if its use is voluntary.  There are no comparable
Federal laws restricting the uses non-government organizations can make of
it, or compelling them to tell you anything about their plans.  Some states
have recently enacted regulations on collection of SSNs by private entities.
With private institutions, your main recourse is refusing to do business with
anyone whose terms you don't like.  They, in turn, are allowed to refuse to
deal with you on those terms.

                               Short History

Social Security numbers were introduced by the Social Security Act of 1935.
They were originally intended to be used only by the social security program.
In 1943 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9397 which required federal agencies
to use the number when creating new record-keeping systems.  In 1961 the IRS
began to use it as a taxpayer ID number.  The Privacy Act of 1974 required
authorization for government agencies to use SSNs in their data bases and
required disclosures (detailed below) when government agencies request the
number.  Agencies which were already using SSN as an identifier before
January 1, 1975 were allowed to continue using it.  The Tax Reform Act of
1976 gave authority to state or local tax, welfare, driver's license, or
motor vehicle registration authorities to use the number in order to
establish identities.  The Privacy Protection Study Commission of 1977
recommended that the Executive Order be repealed after some agencies referred
to it as their authorization to use SSNs.  I don't know whether it was
repealed, but no one seems to have cited EO 9397 as their authorization

Several states use the SSN as a driver's license number, while others record
it on applications and store it in their database.  Some states that
routinely use it on the license will make up another number if you insist.
According to the terms of the Privacy Act, any that have a space for it on
the application forms should have a disclosure notice.  Many don't, and until
someone takes them to court, they aren't likely to change.  (Though New York
recently agreed to start adding the notice on the basis of a letter written
by a reader of this blurb.)

The Privacy Act of 1974 (Pub. L. 93-579) requires that any federal, state, or
local government agency that requests your Social Security Number has to tell
you four things:

1:  Whether disclosure of your Social Security Number is required or

2:  What statute or other authority they have for asking for your number,

3:  How your Social Security Number will be used if you give it to them, and

4:  The consequences of failure to provide an SSN.

In addition, the Act says that only Federal law can make use of the Social
Security Number mandatory.  So anytime you're dealing with a government
institution and you're asked for your Social Security Number, just look for
the Privacy Act Statement.  If there isn't one, complain and don't give your
number.  If the statement is present, read it.  If it says giving your Social
Security Number is voluntary, you'll have to decide for yourself whether to
fill in the number.

                           Private Organizations

The guidelines for dealing with non-governmental institutions are much more
tenuous.  Most of the time private organizations that request your Social
Security Number can get by quite well without your number, and if you can
find the right person to negotiate with, they'll willingly admit it.  The
problem is finding that right person.  The person behind the counter is often
told no more than "get the customers to fill out the form completely."

Most of the time, you can convince them to use some other number.  Usually
the simplest way to refuse to give your Social Security Number is simply to
leave the appropriate space blank.  One of the times when this isn't a strong
enough statement of your desire to conceal your number is when dealing with
institutions which have direct contact with your employer.  Most employers
have no policy against revealing your Social Security Number; they apparently
believe that it must be an unintentional slip when an employee doesn't
provide an SSN to everyone who asks.

Public utilities (gas, electric, phone, etc.) are considered to be private
organizations under the laws regulating SSNs.  Most of the time they ask for
an SSN, and aren't prohibited from asking for it, but they'll usually relent
if you insist.  Ask to speak to a supervisor, insist that they document a
corporate policy requiring it, ask about alternatives, ask why they need it
and suggest alternatives.

 Lenders and Borrowers
 (those who send reports to the IRS)

Banks and credit card issuers and various others are required by the IRS to
report the SSNs of account holders to whom they pay interest or when they
charge interest and report it to the IRS.  If you don't tell them your number
you will probably either be refused an account or be charged a penalty such
as withholding of taxes on your interest.

Most banks send your name, address, and SSN to a company called ChexSystem    |
when you open an account.  ChexSystem keeps a database of people whose        |
accounts have been terminated for fraud or chronic insufficient funds in the  |
past 5 years.  ChexSystems is covered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and   |
the bank is required to let you know if it refuses to open your account and a |
report from ChexSystems was a factor.  You can also send a letter to          |
ChexSystems directly and request a copy of your report.                       |

Many Banks, Brokerages, and other financial institutions have started
implementing automated systems to let you check your balance. All too often,
they are using SSNs as the PIN that lets you get access to your personal
account information.  If your bank does this to you, write them a letter
pointing out how common it is for the people with whom you have financial
business to know your SSN.  Ask them to change your PIN, and if you feel like
doing a good deed, ask them to stop using the SSN as a default identifier for
their other customers.  Some customers will believe that there's some
security in it, and be insufficiently protective of their account numbers.

Sometimes banks provide for a customer-supplied password, but are reluctant
to advertise it.  The only way to find out is to ask if they'll let you
provide a password.  (This is reportedly true of Citibank Visa, e.g.  They
ask for a phone number but are willing to accept any password.)

When buying (and possibly refinancing) a house, most banks will now ask for
your Social Security Number on the Deed of Trust.  This is because the
Federal National Mortgage Association recently started requiring it.  The
fine print in their regulation admits that some consumers won't want to give
their number, and allows banks to leave it out when pressed.  [It first
recommends getting it on the loan note, but then admits that it's already on
various other forms that are a required part of the package, so they already
know it.  The Deed is a public document, so there are good reasons to refuse
to put it there, even though all parties to the agreement already have access
to your number.]

 Insurers, Hospitals, Doctors

No laws require medical service providers to use your Social Security Number
as an ID number (except for Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)  They often use it
because it's convenient or because your employer uses it to identify
employees to its groups health plan.  In the latter case, you have to get
your employer to change their policies.  Often, the people who work in
personnel assume that the employer or insurance company requires use of the
SSN when that's not really the case.  When a previous employer asked for my
SSN for an insurance form, I asked them to try to find out if they had to use
it.  After a week they reported that the insurance company had gone along
with my request and told me what number to use.  Blood banks also ask for the
number but are willing to do without if pressed on the issue.  After I asked
politely and persistently, the blood bank I go to agreed that they didn't
have any use for the number.  They've now expunged my SSN from their
database, and they seem to have taught their receptionists not to request the

Most insurance companies share access to old claims through the Medical
Information Bureau.  If your insurance company uses your SSN, other insurance
companies will have a much easier time finding out about your medical
history.  You can get a copy of the file MIB keeps on you by writing to
Medical Information Bureau, P.O. Box 105, Essex Station, Boston, MA 02112.
Their phone number is (617)426-3660.

If an insurance agent asks for your Social Security Number in order to "check
your credit", point out that the contract is invalid if your check bounces or
your payment is late.  They don't need to know what your credit is like, just
whether you've paid them.


The Family Support Act of 1988 (Pub. L. 100-485) requires states to require
parents to give their Social Security Numbers in order to get a birth
certificate issued for a newborn.  The law allows the requirement to be
waived for "good cause", but there's no indication of what may qualify.

The IRS requires taxpayers to report SSNs for dependents over one year of
age, but the requirement can be avoided if you're prepared to document the
existence of the child by other means if challenged.  The law on this can be
found at 26 USC 6109.  The penalty for not giving a dependant's number is
only $5.  Several people have reported that they haven't provided SSNs for
their dependents for several years, and haven't been challenged by the IRS.

 Universities and Colleges

Universities that accept federal funds are subject to the Family Educational
Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (the "Buckley Amendment"), which prohibits
them from giving out personal information on students without permission.
There is an exception for directory information, which is limited to names,
addresses, and phone numbers, and another exception for release of
information to the parents of minors.  There is no exception for Social
Security Numbers, so covered Universities aren't allowed to reveal students'
numbers without their permission.  In addition, state universities are bound
by the requirements of the Privacy Act, which requires them to provide the
disclosures mentioned above.  If they make uses of the SSN which aren't
covered by the disclosure they are in violation.

           Why SSNs are a bad choice for UIDs in data bases

Database designers continue to introduce the Social Security Number as the
key when putting together a new database or when re-organizing an old one.
Some of the qualities that are (often) useful in a key and that people think
they are getting from the SSN are Uniqueness, Universality, Security, and
Identification.  When designing a database, it is instructive to consider
which of these qualities are actually important in your application; many
designers assume unwisely that they are all useful for every application,
when in fact each is occasionally a drawback.  The SSN provides none of them,
so designs predicated on the assumption that it does provide them will fail
in a variety of ways.


Many people assume that Social Security Numbers are unique.  They were
intended by the Social Security Administration to be unique, but they didn't
take sufficient precautions to ensure that it would be so.  There have been
several instances when two different SSA offices issued the same number to
different people.  They have also given a previously issued number to someone
with the same name as the original recipient, thinking it was the same person
asking again.  There are a few numbers that were used by thousands of people
because they were on sample cards shipped in wallets by their manufacturers.
(One is given below.)

The passage of the Immigration reform law in 1986 caused an increase in the
duplicate use of SSNs.  Since the SSN is now required for employment, illegal
immigrants must find a valid name/SSN pair in order to fool the INS, and IRS
long enough to collect a paycheck.  Using the SSN when you can't cross-check
your database with the SSA means you can count on getting some false numbers
mixed in with the good ones.


Not everyone has a Social Security Number.  Foreigners are the primary
exception, but many children don't get SSNs until they're in school.  They
were only designed to be able to cover people who were eligible for Social


Few people ever ask to see an SSN card; they believe whatever you say.  The
ability to recite the number provides little evidence that you're associated
with the number in anyone else's database.

There's little reason to carry your card with you anyway.  It isn't a good    |
form of identification, and if your wallet is lost or stolen, it provides     |
another way for the thief to hurt you, especially if any of your banks use    |
the SSN as your PIN.                                                          |


The card is not at all forgery-resistant, even if anyone did ever ask for it.
The numbers don't have any redundancy (no check-digits) so any 9-digit number
in the range of numbers that have been issued is a valid number.  It's
relatively easy to copy the number incorrectly, and there's no way to tell
that you've done so.

In most cases, there is no cross-checking that a number is valid.  Credit
card and checking account numbers are checked against a database almost every
time they are used.  If you write down someone's phone number incorrectly,
you find out the first time you try to use it.

             Why you should resist requests for your SSN

When you give out your number, you are providing access to information about
yourself.  You're providing access to information that you don't have the
ability or the legal right to correct or rebut.  You provide access to data
that is irrelevant to most transactions but that will occasionally trigger
prejudice.  Worst of all, since you provided the key, (and did so
"voluntarily") all the info discovered under your number will be presumed to
be true, about you, and relevant.

A major problem with the use of SSNs as identifiers is that it makes it hard
to control access to personal information.  Even assuming you want someone to
be able to find out some things about you, there's no reason to believe that
you want to make all records concerning yourself available.  When multiple
record systems are all keyed by the same identifier, and all are intended to
be easily accessible to some users, it becomes difficult to allow someone
access to some of the information about a person while restricting them to
specific topics.

Unfortunately, far too many organizations assume that anyone who presents
your SSN must be you.  When more than one person uses the same number, it
clouds up the records.  If someone intended to hide their activities, it's
likely that it'll look bad on whichever record it shows up on.  When it
happens accidentally, it can be unexpected, embarrassing, or worse.  How do
you prove that you weren't the one using your number when the record was

                What you can do to protect your number

If despite your having written "refused" in the box for Social Security
Number, it still shows up on the forms someone sends back to you (or worse,
on the ID card they issue), your recourse is to write letters or make phone
calls.  Start politely, explaining your position and expecting them to
understand and cooperate.  If that doesn't work, there are several more
things to try:

1: Talk to people higher up in the organization.  This often works
        simply because the organization has a standard way of dealing
        with requests not to use the SSN, and the first person you deal
        with just hasn't been around long enough to know what it is.

2: Enlist the aid of your employer.  You have to decide whether talking
        to someone in personnel, and possibly trying to change
        corporate policy is going to get back to your supervisor and
        affect your job.

3: Threaten to complain to a consumer affairs bureau.  Most newspapers
        can get a quick response.  Ask for their "Action Line" or
        equivalent.  If you're dealing with a local government agency,
        look in the state or local government section of the phone book
        under "consumer affairs."  If it's a federal agency, your
        congressmember may be able to help.

4: Insist that they document a corporate policy requiring the number.
        When someone can't find a written policy or doesn't want to
        push hard enough to get it, they'll often realize that they
        don't know what the policy is, and they've just been following

5: Ask what they need it for and suggest alternatives.  If you're
        talking to someone who has some independence, and they'd like
        to help, they will sometimes admit that they know the reason
        the company wants it, and you can satisfy that requirement a
        different way.

6: Tell them you'll take your business elsewhere (and follow through if
        they don't cooperate.)

7: If it's a case where you've gotten service already, but someone
        insists that you have to provide your number in order to have a
        continuing relationship, you can choose to ignore the request
        in hopes that they'll forget or find another solution before
        you get tired of the interruption.

If someone absolutely insists on getting your Social Security Number, you may
want to give a fake number.  There are legal penalties for providing a false  |
number when you expect to gain some benefit from it.  A federal court of      |
appeals ruled that using a false SSN to get a Driver's License violates the   |
federal law.                                                                  |

There are a few good choices for "anonymous" numbers.  Making one up at
random is a bad idea, as it may coincide with someone's real number and cause
them some amount of grief.  It's better to use a number like 078-05-1120,
which was printed on "sample" cards inserted in thousands of new wallets sold
in the 40's and 50's.  It's been used so widely that both the IRS and SSA
recognize it immediately as bogus, while most clerks haven't heard of it.

There are several prefixes that have never been assigned, and which therefore
don't conflict with anyone's real number.  They include the following

1.  Any field all zeroes (no field of zeroes is ever assigned)

2.  First digit "8" (no area numbers in the 800 series have been assigned)

3.  First two digits 73-79 (no area numbers in the 700 series have been
    assigned except 700-729 which were assigned to railroad workers until

Giving a number with one of these patterns rather than your own number isn't
very useful if there's anything serious at stake since they're likely to be
noticed .  Numbers beginning with 9 have never been assigned to individuals,
but some have been assigned to organizations and for other special purposes.
The Social Security Administration recommends that people showing Social
Security cards in advertisements use numbers in the range 987-65-4320 through

If you're designing a database, and want to use numbers other than Social
Security Numbers, you'd be better off generating numbers that are shorter
than 9 digits, so they won't be confused with SSNs.  If you have an existing
database using SSNs, and want to allow people to use a different identifier,
it's better to generate longer or shorter numbers or ones with letters
included rather than depending on these unused patterns.

The Social Security Administration recommends that you request a copy of your
file from them every few years to make sure that your records are correct
(your income and "contributions" are being recorded for you, and no one
else's are.)  As a result of a recent court case, the SSA has agreed to
accept corrections of errors when there isn't any contradictory evidence, SSA
has records for the year before or after the error, and the claimed earnings
are consistent with earlier and later wages.  (San Jose Mercury News, 5/14,
1992 p 6A) Call the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213 and ask
for Form 7004, (Request for Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement.)

                             When All Else Fails                              |

The Social Security Administration apparently does have a policy that allows  |
individuals to get a replacement number in extreme cases.  I'm still trying   |
to find out the details about what their policies say, and what guidelines    |
headquarters gives to local offices on this.  So far what I've been told      |
unofficially is that the local office is authorized to issue replacement      |
numbers if you can demonstrate actual harm.  This usually involves a credit   |
record that contains errors resulting from commingling information from       |
multiple individual's histories, and a paper trail showing serious, (but      |
unsuccessful) efforts to get the credit reporter to fix the situation.  When  |
I find out more details, I'll print them here.                                |

                             US Passports

The application for US Passports (DSP-11 12/87) requests a Social Security
Number, but gives no Privacy Act notice.  There is a reference to "Federal
Tax Law" and a misquotation of Section 6039E of the 1986 IRC, claiming that
the section requires that you provide your name, mailing address, date of
birth, and Social Security Number.  The referenced section only requires TIN
(SSN), and it requires that it be sent to the IRS and not to the Passport
office.  It appears that when you apply for a passport, you can refuse to
reveal your Social Security Number to the passport office, and instead mail a
notice to the IRS, giving only your Social Security Number (other identifying
info optional) and notifying them that you are applying for a passport.  [I
can provide copies (in postscript) of the letter that was used successfully
by one contributor.  I'd be interested in hearing how the State department
and the Post Office (which is willing to process the forms for you) react.]

             Results from Some Recent Legal Cases (3/24/93)

CPSR joined two legal cases in 1992 which concerned Social Security Numbers
and privacy.  One of them challenged the IRS practice of printing Social
Security Numbers on mailing labels when they send out tax forms and related
correspondence.  The other challenged Virginia's requirement of a Social
Security Number in order to register to vote.

Dr. Peter Zilahy Ingerman filed suit against the IRS in Federal District
Court in 1991, and CPSR filed a friend of the court brief in August '91.  The
case was decided in favor of the IRS.  According to "Privacy Journal", the
IRS plans to start covering the SSNs on its mailing labels.

The Virginia case was filed by a resident of the state who refused to supply
a Social Security Number when registering to vote.  When the registrar
refused to accept his registration, he filed suit.  He also challenged the
state of Virginia on two other bases: the registration form lacked a Privacy
Act notice, and the voter lists the state publishes include Social Security
Numbers.  The Federal court of appeals ruled that the state of Virginia may
not allow the disclosure of Social Security numbers as a condition of
registering to vote.  The court said that the Virginia requirement places an
"intolerable burden" on the right to vote.  The case is officially referred
to as Greidinger v. Davis, No. 92-1571, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals,
March 22, 1993.

If you have suggestions for improving this document please send them to me
                                       Chris Hibbert
hibbert@memex.com        or            Memex, Inc.
                                       550 California Ave, Suite 210
                                       Palo Alto, CA 94306

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