You may have heard that Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) is sponsoring legislation, hearings on which are scheduled to being 2 February 2012, that will hereafter bar public access to the Social Security Master Death Index, and such related information as SS-5 (Social Security) applications, on the grounds the same will prevent, if not end, identity theft, but the reality is that such is merely wishful thinking that will ultimately do more harm to the common good than stop identity theft.
I need only point out that previous steps taken with the same intent, such as closing access to birth and death certificates in those several states where there had been no restriction, for the purposes of limiting access to “maiden name of mother” long used by banks and other institutions as the pass code for access to account information, have FAILED TO HAVE ANY positive impact. My mother’s maiden name is not only stated on my birth certificate, but in numerous biographies which have been published over the years, including, but not limited to, Who’s Who Among American High School Students (1969), National Student Register (1973), Outstanding Young Men in America (1977), and in articles published in local newspapers announcing one of my accomplishments while I was in high school or college. By the logic of this proposed legislation, these books and magazines should be censored, if not destroyed, to protect me and others like me, yet I have NEVER been a victim of identity theft!
Would it not make far more sense to turn the information in a birth certificate or a Social Security file into something LESS USEFUL to an identity thief? For example, why not bar banks and other institutions from using “mother’s maiden name” as a pass code? It would be FAR EASIER TO ENFORCE if only because the majority of citizens would become potential informants of any violation, particularly since so many violations in the current environment have been on the part of government or business clerks whose jobs routinely require access to “mother’s maiden name”. True, the change would still allow such persons to commit identity theft, but it would become riskier by virtue of there being fewer alternative explanations of how the crime was possible.
Though specifically speaking of “mother’s maiden name” may seem at odds with opposing restrictions on the Social Security Master Death Index, hereafter MDI, it is not. The logic of barring access to the MDI is that the actual records indexed contain such information as “mother’s maiden name”.
While I can cite a number of different studies &/or news accounts, many republished in Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter
http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/01/whos_climbing_y.html#more; http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2011/10/who-commits-identity-theft.html#more; and
elsewhere (http://www.andrewpatrick.ca/security-and-privacy/id-theft-criminals; http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c767353ef00e5507a28908834; and
http://www.techworld.com.au/article/403490/111_arrested_massive_id_theft_bust), establishing it has yet to be proven that the MDI or an SS-5 application has ever been used to engage in identity theft (and has even been used to catch a thief, albeit inadvertently), the justification almost invariably cited for restriction on records that without the restriction would otherwise have been public or would soon become public, more immediate issue is the certain hardship the law will bring for persons needing access to the MDI to identify someone as a “relative” for purposes of either compiling a family medical history or complying with inheritance laws in all 50 states, if not world-wide.
Though these restrictions presumably are intended to protect the families of a decedent, it is actually those very families who will be harmed by the practice, when either attempting to compile family medical histories or as I and others like me, working with courts in the several states and even world-wide, are unable to identify or confirm the identity of an individual, hereafter “account holder” as someone who has a shared hereditary illness or is entitled to receive goods &/or moneys from the estate of another decedent because access is denied on privacy grounds to an SS-5 or other records which would prove the identity.
There are at least five ironies which such restrictions serve to compound.
First, while an executor or administrator has, as representative of his/her decedent, a recognized legal right for access sought under the laws of the principal domicile to information of the “account holder”, even if contrary to the laws governing that of the “account holder”, it is not usual for existing or proposed privacy laws to require a closer degree of kinship than actually exists between said decedent and “account holder”. The same is also true when a death certificate (perhaps found through the Master Death Index) may be needed to compile a family medical history and identify either organ/tissue donors or what gene commonly shared persons found to be not just related, but also to have the hereditary illness, may ultimately provide the means for a cure. Thus, for surviving issue of an “account holder”, passage of this law increases the potential for premature, and possibly preventable, deaths.
Second, I and my colleagues as agent for said executor or administrator, not only have the same right of access as the executor or administrator, but we are also de facto agents of said Court, and thus are expected to observe the same standards of ethics as any de jure agent of said Court, yet having committed, and not intending to commit, any crime, from sharing “characteristics” with other individuals who have been classified as criminals, we are implicitly painted as criminals even without any proof that the “behavior” in which we engage is indeed “criminal”. While there may be parallels here to “racial” profiling, ergo grounds to advocate tolerating the same for a “greater good”, the “greater good” actually argues against the profiling here as we cannot be readily identified as a member of our “race” by our name, our complexion, our style of dress or even our place of business, thus the negative impact of the “racial profiling” is potentially far more reaching while conversely, the benefit to be realized is much smaller.
Third, while it is often argued that I and my colleagues benefit financially from looser restrictions on access to the Master Death Index and like records, the reality is more likely that our fees, paid by an estate regardless of the degree of our success, will be higher when access is denied to the Master Death Index, for without such irrefutable evidence, to identify or confirm the identity of an “account holder”, we must then take more time to seek out, and secure, alternate records which by virtue of being less reliable, may compel us to use documents from multiple sources to build a preponderance of evidence case. Thus, if there is any true “conflict of interest” that results from how restrictive a privacy law may be, it is on the part of the legislators who vote for the laws, any executive who signs it and any individual employed in the enforcement of said law, as the moneys &/or goods that otherwise go to an heir are instead forfeited to the government to be appropriated to the payment of the salary of any of those individuals, or whatever other purpose the legislature might see fit (and no one “objects” because no one has been “taxed” other than perhaps a dispossessed heir who likely will always remain unaware of having been so “taxed”).
Fourth, the Social Security Administration charges a fee to provide access to the SS-5 applications of DECEASED individuals. For individuals such as myself in their capacity as an officer of the Court requesting SS-5 records to identify or prove the identity of an individual, these fees are a part of the cost of doing business, but for the greater community seeking access to the information, particularly if needed for health reasons, even in a stronger economy the fee can be yet another hardship to that is borne if only because of the hope it gives. Rep. Johnson’s legislation will eliminate much, if not all, of the income derived from these fees. While I am unable to say how much, I am nevertheless reminded of what my favorite politician, the late Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) often said about similar situations—“a million here, a million there, pretty soon, you are talking REAL MONEY!” The financial lesson this illustrates, to wit, that paying attention to the “small stuff”, one also takes care of the “bigger”, is too often lost. In the present economy, it seems to me there would be greater benefit to be realized–access to records needed by those who seek it, whether for health reasons or to settle a decedent’s estate, and income for the government from the fees for the information provided without the need to raise taxes–than what this legislation proposes, to wit, no fees paid and increased costs in identifying and prosecuting identity thieves.
Fifth, having noted that the Master Death Index is often used to compile family medical histories, the passage of this legislation further increases, without raising the questions of either the merits or constitutionality of “Obamacare”, the crushing financial burden of medical care in at least 3 ways: 1)it increases the likelihood that any given individual will not be found to have an hereditary disease until the symptoms begin to manifest themselves, at which point, the chances of a cure will be lessened, and the expense of treatment will be greater; 2)such an individual will not have a means to determine whether a parent who died of a disease that is typically hereditary had indeed inherited it rather than the causes being environment &/or the result of a mutation because access to the records to establish the same will be barred; and 3)research to identify the causes and develop cures for many hereditary diseases is limited specifically to the medical community where resources are often not just too widely stretched, but invariably competitive, thus expensive, in order to be first to identify a cure and reap the financial benefits of a patented cure, given that collaboration would likely be taken as implicit proof of a violation of anti-trust laws, while the research becomes collaborative with the end result of achieving goals in a shorter period of time, thus likely lower cost, by allowing individuals, perhaps without “official” sponsorship, to engage in identifying who belongs not just to an extended family, but one with either a documentable history of death from the same hereditary disease or where the same gene, which may subsequently found to cause said disease, is found to be carried by those living members already diagnosed with said disease. While there is a potential violation of the privacy of any individual member of such a group, specifically, the right to be “ignorant”, it would be that individual who makes the decision, not a legislator or bureaucrat, and with the guilty of any perpetrator of a violation being certain even to me, I would have no qualms with his/her being punished to the fullest degree allowed by law.
As Rep. Johnson stipulates on his website that due to overwhelming volume of mail and a need to respond to the business of his district and constituents, he accepts only messages from his constituents, I would strongly encourage those reading, and agreeing with, this who know themselves to be his constituents, to make their opposition known. As Rep. Johnson is chair of a subcommittee, I would similarly encourage those who know themselves to be constituents of the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Michigan), contact him and every one elsewhere to contact their representative, whether he/she is a member of the committee or not to voice your opposition, as ANY representative is likely to advise the committee members of overwhelmingly opposition on the part of his/her constituents. Regardless of whom your representative may be, you may locate not just email address, but office phone and fax numbers by utilizing the following link–http://www.congressmerge.com/onlinedb/
It has already been announced that no additional witnesses will be allowed to testify at the hearing, so your letters, emails, faxes &/or phone calls to your representative may be the only means to prevent passage of this legislation.