Social Security numbers need legislative protection
By Rep. Ron Paul


5/15/02 - When the Social Security program began in the 1930s, many Americans were uneasy with the thought of being assigned a number by the government. This is precisely why President Franklin Roosevelt felt it necessary to assure an anxious nation that “Only you and the Social Security administration will ever know your private Social Security number.”

Sixty-five years later, the impact of that lie is felt by every American who applies for a job, opens a bank account, visits his doctor, or even applies for a fishing license. The promised confidentiality of Social Security numbers, which began to erode almost immediately, is a joke today. We should have known better, of course. No federal agency or program can restrain itself for long.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)

Thanks to congressional indifference, private Social Security numbers now are used by virtually all federal, state and local government agencies as a de facto national ID. As a result, once-private numbers intended only for the administration of Social Security benefits have become widely used in our daily lives.

Perhaps the worst abuser is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which illegitimately uses Social Security numbers as taxpayer ID numbers — an abuse certainly never intended by Congress when the Social Security Administration was established. Today the IRS acts in concert with the Social Security Administration, by requiring the assignment of Social Security numbers to infants before parents may claim a dependent deduction on their taxes. I trust the majority of members of Congress still understand that a free society should not be registering infants.

This abuse of private Social Security numbers has led to a terrible loss of privacy and a troubling rise in identity theft. Since one centralized government number identifies virtually every American citizen, the private sector — including banks, insurance companies, credit reporting agencies and other businesses — predictably adopted the numbers to identify their customers. In fact, federal law requires financial institutions to obtain Social Security numbers from account holders.

The widespread dissemination of private numbers makes it possible for unscrupulous persons to easily obtain a victim’s Social Security number and access bank accounts, obtain credit cards, and assume a false identity. Many Americans have lost their life savings as a result of identity theft, yet Congress continues to permit gross misuse of Social Security numbers.

Congress should pass sweeping legislation aimed at eliminating widespread government privacy abuses and curbing identity theft. I introduced The Identity Theft Prevention Act (H.R. 220) to halt the misuse of Social Security numbers by the federal government and provide all Americans a fresh start with regard to their own personal and financial privacy. This legislation will forbid the use of Social Security numbers by any federal agency other than the Social Security Administration.

The act also places the same prohibition on state and local governments, which have no business using federal Social Security numbers in the first place. The premise is quite simple: Social Security numbers should be used only for the administration of Social Security benefits.

Furthermore, the act requires the Social Security Administration to offer every American a new Social Security number within five years. The confidentiality of existing numbers has been destroyed; they are available in far too many government and private databases. A clean slate is required to provide Americans real personal and financial privacy. The new numbers issued by the Social Security Administration will be strictly confidential; all accrued retirement benefits will be transferred to the new number.

It is time to start over with regard to Social Security numbers in this country. The federal government, not the private sector, is by far the worst invader of our privacy. Legislation is needed to reverse the terrible trend toward a government surveillance society — and the first step in that reversal must be to halt the use of Social Security numbers as national IDs.

The government has broken its promise of Social Security number confidentiality, resulting in the steady erosion of personal privacy and a rise in identity theft. Congress can take the first step to restore privacy by requiring the federal government to keep Social Security numbers strictly confidential.

Rep. Paul, a Republican from Texas, is vice chair of the Financial Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

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