May 8, 2000
Government Poses the Greatest Threat to our Privacy
The Social Security Number has Become a National ID
Several years ago, a constituent of mine was victimized by an unscrupulous insurance company employee. Unknown to my constituent at the time, the thief obtained her Social Security number and stole her identity. The thief applied for credit cards, took out loans, and wrote bad checks, all using her name. Her credit rating was ruined, and she found herself unable to get a job in her chosen field of law enforcement because felonies committed by the thief showed up on background checks. After years of fighting with credit agencies, state authorities, and the Social Security administration, she still has not completely cleared her name.
Unfortunately, identity theft is a growing trend in America. While we must blame and adequately punish the criminals involved, we also must demand that Congress do more to maintain the confidentiality of Social Security numbers (which is the key to identity theft).
First and foremost, we must end the massive abuse of Social Security numbers by the government. The widespread proliferation of uses (and misuses) of the number is well known to all of us. One cannot open a bank account, get a job, get married, or even obtain a simple library card without disclosing one's number. Even worse, the IRS uses Social Security numbers as a taxpayer ID, and IRS regulations even force parents to get numbers for newborns to qualify for the dependency deduction. Increasingly, we are tracked from cradle to grave by our Social Security number, which now undeniably acts as a national ID. Every American should be alarmed by this terrible loss of privacy caused by a government that seeks to number and track its citizens.
Concerns about personal privacy are not new. When the Social Security program began in the 1930s, people objected to the idea of being assigned a number that could be widely used as an identifier. Franklin Roosevelt spoke to those concerns, promising Americans that only they and the Social Security administration would ever know their number. Sadly, 65 years later we see how utterly this promise has been broken. The mission of Congress should be to reverse this dangerous trend and restore privacy before America truly becomes a "surveillance society."
I introduced the "Freedom and Privacy Restoration Act" (H.R.220) to immediately bring an end to governmental abuse of our Social Security numbers. This legislation simply prohibits the federal or state governments from using your Social Security number for any purpose not directly related to the Social Security administration. Quite simply, your number is your private business, and this legislation is badly needed to restore promised confidentiality. The IRS should not know your private number, and certainly your local motor vehicles department has no business asking for it.
Similarly, I cosponsored the "Social Security Number Confidentiality Act" (H.R.3218), which forces the Treasury department to prevent numbers from being viewed through window envelopes used for benefits checks. H.R. 3218 passed by a unanimous vote in the House last week, which encourages me that citizens are voicing their privacy concerns to their Representatives.
The administration and federal bureaucrats will continue to look for ways to increase government monitoring of citizens. Recently, the administration proposed and fought to enact legislation creating a "uniform standard health identifier," clearly as part of a larger plan to create a national medical system. As a physician and privacy advocate, I know how dangerous a federal medical ID would be. The sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship would be destroyed if the patient knew his or her medical problems would be entered into a federal database. The government has no business knowing your medical history. Virtually all Americans agree with me, because public support for my opposition to the medical ID proposal was overwhelming. Ultimately, the medical ID plan was eliminated by my amendment to a larger bill.
The federal government should keep its promise and restrict its use of Social Security numbers. Above all, it should restore the confidentiality of your private number, so that we might prevent identity theft crimes in the future. In the meantime, next time the government asks for your Social Security number, question the request and voice your objection.