The Unknown Citizen
(To JS/07/M/378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That in the modem sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War until the day he retired
He worked In a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors, Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd In his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(our report on his Union shows it was sound/
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once In hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modem Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenicist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Ws he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

W H. Auden

Copyright ® 1940 and renewed 1968 by W. H. Auden. From Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

VIII. Recommendations Regarding Use of the Social Security Number

Until safeguards against abuse of automated personal data systems have become effective, constraints should be imposed on the use of the SSN. After that, the question of SSN use might properly be reopened.

We recommend that Federal policy with respect to use of the SSN be governed by the following general principles.

First, uses of the SSN should be limited to those necessary for carrying out requirements imposed by the Federal government.

Second, Federal agencies and departments should not require or promote use of the SSN except to the extent that they have a specific legislative mandate from the Congress to do so.

Third, the Congress should be sparing in mandating use of the SSN, and should do so only after full and careful consideration preceded by well advertised hearings that elicit substantial public participation. Such consideration should weigh carefully the pros and cons of any proposed use, and should pay particular attention to whether effective safeguards have been applied to the automated personal data systems that would be affected by the proposed use of the SSN.

Fourth, when the SSN is used in instances that do not conform to the three foregoing principles, no individual should be coerced into providing his SSN, nor should his SSN be used without his consent.

Fifth, an individual should be fully and fairly informed of his rights and responsibilities relative to uses of the SSN, including the right to disclose his SSN whenever he deems it in his interest to do so.

In light of these principles, we make specific recommendations with respect to the individual's right to refuse to disclose his SSN, issuance of SSNs, constraints on use or dissemination of SSNs, and prohibition of non-data-processing uses of the SSN. Ideally, Congress should review all present Federal requirements for use of the SSN to determine whether the existing requirements should be continued, repealed, or modified. In this chapter, we recommend several modifications that would apply to all SSN requirements now in force.

Specific Recommendations on the Social Security Number


As indicated in Chapter VII, increasing demands are being placed on individuals to furnish an SSN in circumstances when use of the SSN is not required by the Federal government for Federal program purposes. For example, the SSN is demanded of individuals by State motor vehicle departments, by public utility companies, landlords, credit grantors, schools, colleges, and innumerable other organizations.

Existing Federal law and Social Security regulations are silent on such uses of the SSN. They provide no clear basis for keeping State and local government agencies and private organizations from demanding and using the number. As a practical matter, disclosure of one's SSN has been made a condition for obtaining many benefits and services, and legal challenges to this condition under State law have been almost uniformly unsuccessful.

If the SSN is to be stopped from becoming a de facto SUI, the individual must have the option not to disclose his number unless required to do so by the Federal government for legitimate Federal program purposes, and there must be legal authority for his refusal. Since existing law offers no such clear authority, we recommend specific, preemptive, Federal legislation providing:

(1) That an individual has the right to refuse to disclose his SSN to any person or organization that does not have specific authority provided by Federal statute to request it;

(2) That an individual has the right to redress if his lawful refusal to disclose his SSN results in the denial of a benefit, or the threat of denial of a benefit; and that, should an individual under threat of loss of benefits supply his SSN under protest to an unauthorized requestor, he shall not be considered to have forfeited his right to redress.

(3) That any oral or written request made to an individual for his SSN must be accompanied by a clear statement indicating whether or not compliance with the request is required by Federal statute, and, if so, citing the specific legal requirement.


The report of the Social Security Number Task Force1 identified the need to improve the integrity of the SSN for some uses now required by Federal law. Steps have been initiated during the last two years to decrease the likelihood that any individual will be assigned more. than one SSN without the knowledge of the Social Security Administration. They include: improved procedures for verifying the identity of each applicant for an SSN; issuance of SSNs only from the central office of the Social Security Administration rather than from its 1,000 field offices; implementation of a process- that will provide comprehensive, automated screening of applications for SSNs; and the establishment by Section 208 of the Social Security Act2 of a penalty for fraudulently furnishing false information regarding one's identity in order to obtain an SSN. There is good reason to expect that the combined effect of all these actions will be to improve significantly the integrity of the SSN.

Enumeration of School Children. The Social Security Number Task Force recommended that the Social Security Administration "should embark on a positive program of enumerating [issuing SSNs to] school children at the ninth-grade level, with concurrent establishment of proof of age and identity." We have given long and careful thought to this recommendation. Our first inclination was flatly to oppose it as an action that would promote the use of the SSN as a de facto SUI. After further deliberation, and exploration of relevant issues with the Commissioner of Social Security, we decided to endorse the Task Force recommendation with two important qualifications. Specifically, we recommend

(4) That the Social Security Administration undertake a positive program of issuing SSNs to ninth-grade students in schools, provided (a) that no school system be induced to cooperate in such a program contrary to its preference; and (b) that any person shall have the right to refuse to be issued an SSN in connection with such a program, and such right of refusal shall be available both to the student and to his parents or guardians.

Children in the ninth grade have reached the age when they are likely to seek part-time or summer employment and need an SSN for Social Security program and Federal income tax purposes. Indeed, many young people obtain SSNs for such purposes before they reach ninth grade. Under Section 137 of the Social Security Amendments of 1972, many children who receive certain Federal cash benefits will also be assigned SSNs before they reach ninth grade. Since a program of ninth-grade enumeration is likely to be consistent with the needs and convenience of most young people, it is not likely to seem coercive. Moreover, our recommendation is designed to prevent any coercion.

Both the Task Force Report and the Commissioner of Social Security have indicated that a program of ninth-grade enumeration would offer the Social Security Administration an opportunity to inform students about the Social Security program and their rights and responsibilities in relation to it. We urge that any such student briefings include information about their rights and responsibilities with respect to uses of the SSN. We also note the observations made in the Task Force Report, and reiterated by the Commissioner of Social Security, that ninth-grade enumeration is advantageous to the Social Security Administration on a cost-benefit basis.

Finally, our inquiries and discussions with Social Security Administration representatives convinced us that a positive program of ninth-grade enumeration would contribute significantly to enhancing the integrity of the SSN. The contribution to this end might appear somewhat greater if the program enumerated children at the time of their first enrollment in school, as authorized by the Congress .in Section 137 of the Social Security Amendments of 1972. However, we strongly recommend

(5) That there be no positive program of issuing SSNs to children below the ninth-grade level, either at the initiative of the Social Security Administration or in response to requests from schools or other institutions.

A positive program of issuing SSNs to all children at school entry has little to recommend it. It would almost surely seem coercive, since the proportion of children in kindergarten or first grade who need an SSN is small. These children are too young for a significant educational contact with the Social Security program. Most important, such a mass enumeration program would be a very significant further step toward making the SSN a de facto standard universal identifier-a step there are no compelling reasons to take.

Enumeration of Beneficiaries of Federally Funded Programs. As we noted in Chapter VII (pp. 120-121), Section 137 of the Social Security Amendments of 1972 requires the Secretary of HEW to take affirmative measures to issue the SSN as widely as practicable.

to any individual who is an applicant for or recipient of benefits under any program financed in whole or in part from Federal funds including any child on whose behalf such benefits are claimed by another person.

This provision, read literally, could well provide the authority for establishing a standard universal identifier. Yet as we understand it, this provision was included in the legislation in the narrow context of improving the administration of public assistance programs. It is a technical provision in a large and complicated piece of legislation (the printed Public Law runs to 165 pages) in which other very controversial issues occupied the attention of the Congress and the public. This particular provision was not the subject of public hearings.

The conditions under which Section 137 became law did not allow for adequate consideration of an action that has the potential of driving America toward an SUI. We therefore believe that the Secretary has an obligation to use the authority granted in Section 137 only in the most limited way consistent with the mandate-as a tool for improving the administration of public assistance programs. The potential consequences are too dangerous to allow an SUI to be established without wide and careful public consideration and full assessment of the potential consequences.

Specifically, we recommend

(6) That the Secretary limit affirmative measures taken to issue SSNs pursuant to Section 205 (c)(2) (13)(i)(II) of the Social Security Act, as amended by Section 137 of Public Law 92-603, to applicants for or recipients of public assistance benefits supported from Federal funds under the Social Security Act.

We further recommend

(7) That the Secretary do his utmost to assure that any future legislation dealing with the SSN be preceded by full and careful consideration and well advertised hearings that elicit substantial public participation.

We would stress once again that the SSN in its present form is not a satisfactory standard universal identifier. Even with the steps that have been taken to improve the integrity of the SSN, the SSN cannot provide a guarantee of identity unless it is coupled with some stable feature of physical identification, such as fingerprints. In its present form, therefore, adoption of the SSN as an SUI would not lead to all the advantages of improved program administration that proponents of its widened use anticipate, e.g., to "identify" welfare beneficiaries. If the Committee had to choose today between a true SUI, complete with fingerprinted identification cards on the one hand, and something less than ultimate efficiency in the administration of public assistance programs on the other, we would rather risk the latter; we think the American public would too. The steps being taken to strengthen the integrity of the SSN can lead to significant improvement in the administration of public assistance, while our recommendations will check the drift of the SSN toward becoming a de facto SUI. Until effective safeguards against the abuse of computer-based personal data systems have been established, and until there has been full public debate of the desirability of an SUI, this is the point at which the situation must be held in check.


Recommendations (8)-(10) below are designed to limit uses of the SSN to those necessary to carry out Federal government purposes for which there is a legal requirement that the SSN be obtained and recorded, and to discourage all practices that substantially increase the circulation of individual SSNs together with the names of their holders.

Recommendation (8) is intended to constrain the behavior of organizations and persons that are legally required to obtain and record the SSN for Federal purposes, but which use the SSN in other ways that constitute virtual public dissemination of SSNs along with names of the individuals to whom they belong. Among the many uses of the SSN that this recommendation is designed to abate are its use as an employee identification number, a patient identification number, a student identification number, a customer identification number, a driver identification number, and as the primary organizing element in the record-keeping system of any non-Federal organization. Although such uses may be convenient, they are not necessary. Under present circumstances, moreover, they increase the circulation of SSNs, thereby inviting unconstrained linking of record-keeping systems. Accordingly, we recommend

(8) That any organization or person required by Federal law to obtain or record the SSN of any individual be prohibited from making any use or disclosure of the SSN without the informed consent of the individual, except as may be necessary to the Federal government purposes for which it was required to be obtained and recorded. This prohibition should be established by a specifc and preemptive act of Congress.

This recommendation stems in part from observing that the Social Security Administration treats the SSN with the same confidentiality as the data in its records of Social Security accounts. Access to Social Security data is governed by Section 1106 of the Social Security Act and Regulation No. 1 of the Social Security Administration. The result is that the Social Security Administration will disclose an individual's SSN only to those third persons and organizations permitted by law to obtain SSA record data. The Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service each require organizations to obtain and use the SSNs of individuals for various Federal program purposes. In principle these agencies should require such organizations to treat the SSN with the same confidentiality as the Social Security Administration does. Regrettably, however, there appears to be no legal authority to support the imposition of such a requirement. Recommendation (8) would establish such authority.

Recommendation (8), coupled with recommendations (1) and (3) (pp. 125-126, above), would also diminish the risk of nuisance, frustration, and possible serious disadvantage resulting from the use of an individual's SSN to impersonate him. One use of the SSN that appears to be proliferating is as a password, or authenticator of identity, when an individual's name alone is thought insufficient; e.g., in credit-card purchasing and check-cashing. Such use is not necessary, just convenient, and can be risky, since the widespread circulation of SSNs makes them increasingly ascertainable by anyone wishing to impersonate another.

An example from our own experience will illustrate the problem. We met on a Saturday in a conference room in a government facility. Security procedures required us to give names and SSNs from a telephone located outside the locked main entrance to a guard who was out of sight inside the building. The guard had earlier been furnished with a list of our names and SSNs. Given the wide dissemination of SSNs, we were impressed by how easily someone could have impersonated any one of us to gain admittance to the building.

One may treat this example lightly, but the principle is important. As long as the SSN of an individual can be easily obtained (some organizations list the SSNs of their employees or members in published rosters), both individuals and the organizations that use it as a password are vulnerable to whatever harm may result from impersonation.

Recommendations (9) and (10) are intended to constrain the provision of "SSN services" by the Social Security Administration. The phrase, "SSN services," is defined in the Social Security Number Task Force Report as including

enumeration, or issuing numbers to individuals who do not have them; validation, or confirming that the number an organization has on file for an individual is the same as the number that appears for him in SSA records; correction, or supplying the proper number from SSA files when an individual has alleged an incorrect number; and identification, or supplying a number from SSA's files to match a particular name, a name to match a number, or vice-versa [sic].3

The Task Force report recommends that SSN services be provided by the Social Security Administration (i) "to public and private organizations using the SSN for health, welfare, or educational purposes" and (ii) to facilitate research activities.

Although we recognize the spirit of cooperation that prompted the Task Force position, we believe that the effect of the recommendations would unnecessarily spread use of the SSN. Our recommendations limit SSN services even more narrowly than the Task Force recommendations.

We recommend

(9) That the Social Security Administration provide "SSN services" to aid record keeping only to organizations or persons that are required by Federal law to obtain or record the SSN, and then only as necessary to fulfill the purposes for which the SSN is required to be obtained or recorded; and

(10) That the Social Security Administration provide "SSN services" to aid research activities only when it can assure that the provision of such services will not result in the use of the SSN for record-keeping and reporting activities beyond those permitted under recommendation (9), and then only provided that rigid safeguards to protect the confidentiality of personal data, including the SSN, are incorporated into the research design.

These recommendations distinguish between use of the SSN for record-keeping purposes and its use for research activities. SSN services must not be provided to aid an organization's record keeping, except to the extent necessary to enable the organization to fulfill requirements associated with its Federally imposed obligations to collect and record the number. Our recommendation (8) would prohibit organizations from using the SSN beyond this limit, and the Social Security Administration would be obliged to refrain from providing SSN services in cooperation with a violation of the prohibition. As an interim measure, the Social Security Administration should limit SSN services as though recommendation (8) were in force. The limitation must apply to all cases, including requests from organizations that provide health, education, and welfare services.

The effect of our recommendations may be illustrated by a case discussed in the Social Security Number Task Force Report.4 A State mental health service requested SSN services from the Social Security Administration to enable it to use the SSN as the patient identification number in a new computerized record-keeping system. It evidently wanted to use the number for general administrative record keeping; such a use is not legally required for any Federal program purpose. The mental health service is obligated to, use the SSN to report the earnings and income taxes of its own employees; it might also need to obtain and use the SSNs of some of its patients to comply with record-keeping requirements of Federal benefit programs mandated by the Social Security Act, e.g., Medicare. However, its Federally required SSN uses do not extend to using the SSN for all patient record keeping, and the mental health service can clearly create its own identification code to track patients.

If the SSN Task Force recommendations were to be followed in this case, the Social Security Administration would provide SSN services to the mental health service for all its patient record keeping (to simplify the service's reporting of unduplicated patient counts to HEW'S National Institute of Mental Health). Under our recommendation, by contrast, the Social Security Administration would not provide SSN services, and the SSN would, therefore, not be spread by various uses of mental health service records and thus become available for still other uses.

Recommendation (10) recognizes the interest in providing SSN services in support of various kinds of evaluation and research activities. There is no reason why this cannot be done without adding to the unnecessary spread of the SSN for record-keeping and data processing activities or to SSN dissemination of the sort we wish to curtail.

In the case discussed above, suppose that the State mental health service proposes to conduct studies of the effectiveness of its services, and that knowing the SSNs of its patients, and having SSN services, might help in some way. Lacking any Federal requirement to use the SSN for evaluation research, the mental health service could not compel disclosure of patients' SSNs for that purpose. However, for all patients' SSNs voluntarily disclosed with informed consent, our recommendation (10) would permit the Social Security Administration to provide SSN services.


The SSN is sometimes used for a purpose having nothing to do with identification, record keeping, or data processing. While these uses do not directly contribute to unfair information practices, they have other undesirable effects. Consider these examples.

"Lucky number" contests in which an SSN is drawn, and its holder is awarded some prize. This is objectionable because it may induce people to try to obtain extra SSNs to increase their chances of winning, and because it trivializes the SSN.

Various items of merchandise, such as wallets, sold with a number-bearing facsimile Social Security card enclosed. This is how one such sample number noted in Chapter VII5 came to be used by more than five thousand people. There are undoubtedly other difficulties that have not yet come to light. We understand that such practices are abating as a result of years of intensive (and expensive) fieldwork by the Social Security Administration which, however, has no legal authority to prevent them.

"Skip-tracing" efforts in which, to quote a Social Security Administration manual,

[d] ebt or tracing organizations occasionally use special correspondence techniques to obtain information from an individual owing money. Some mail out postcards showing a false [SSN] and asking "Is this your Social Security number? If not, call the number listed below to correct this matter."

This is blatantly deceptive and violates reputable business practice. It may also lead people to think that the Social Security Administration is somehow cooperating with skip-tracers.

Such spurious uses of Social Security cards and SSNs tend to interfere with appropriate uses of the SSN and to confuse the public about its proper purposes. They also complicate the work of the Social Security Administration. Accordingly, we recommend

(11) That specific and preemptive Federal legislation be enacted prohibiting use of an SSN, or any number represented as an SSN, for promotional or commercial purposes.

1Social Security Number Task force: Report to the commissioner (Baltimore, Md.: U.S. Social Security Administration), 1971.

2As provided by Section 130 of the Social Security Amendments of 1972, P.L. 92-603, October 30, 1972; 42 U.S.C. 408.

3Op. cit. pp. 26-27

4 Ibid., pp. 24-25.

5 Note 4, p. 112, above.

Table of Contents