In November, GenealogyBank removed social security numbers from one of their popular free databases, the U.S. Social Security Death Index, after two customers complained their privacy was violated when the Social Security Administration falsely listed them as deceased. This week, Ancestry.com followed suit, removing the entire free SSDI database (aka SSA’s Death Master File) which has been online at RootsWeb.com for over a decade. They also made changes to the SSDI database behind their membership wall on Ancestry.com “due to sensitivities around the information in this database,” removing Social Security numbers from the results for individuals who have died in the last 10 years.
The reasons for these changes began with a report following a Scripps Howard News Service investigation in October 2011, that complained about individuals using Social Security Numbers for deceased individuals found online to commit tax and credit fraud, and culminated in the recent decision by several major genealogy companies to remove access to the Social Security Death Master File on their websites.
The removal of the SSDI from RootsWeb.com was apparently prompted by a petition sent on December 1, 2011, by U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois), to the “five largest genealogy services” who currently host the Death Master File (SSDI) online. The New York Times (which owns About.com) was among those receiving letters, although I don’t include Social Security numbers on my About.com Genealogy site — I just write about how to access and use the SSDI and link to websites that make it available online.
In the letter written to each company’s chief, the Senators urge companies to “remove and no longer post on your website deceased individual’s Social Security numbers” because they believe that the benefits provided by making the Death Master File readily available online are greatly outweighed by the costs of disclosing such personal information. While the letter does concede that posting the Social Security numbers “is not illegal” under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it also goes on to point out that “legality and propriety are not the same thing.”
The letter and the responses by Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank.com concern me deeply. If major genealogy companies aren’t going to fight for genealogists’ access to publicly available records, who is? I understand and am sympathetic to the concerns surrounding identity theft, but examples presented in the original investigation relate to individuals falsely claiming recently deceased children as dependents on their tax returns (which requires use of a Social Security number) — a practice that should be easily unmasked by the IRS if they just checked the Social Security numbers against the federal SSDI database. That is the reason the SSA Death Master File was originally created — to identify and prevent identity fraud by making it easy for governments, banks, credit agencies, and other authorities to easily confirm that a Social Security Number isn’t being used dishonestly.
The letter, also sent to VitalRec.com and FamilySearch.org, claims that “…given the other information available on your website — full names, birth dates, death dates — Social Security numbers provide little benefit to individuals undertaking to learn about their familial history.” [emphasis mine] The authors then go on to say”
While removing the Social Security numbers is preferred, your organization could also take a common-sense measure to protect Social Security numbers by only revealing the first three digits, also known as the ‘area number.’ This portion of the number is assigned by geographic region. As a result, these three numbers could also help researchers identify an individual based on geographic location without revealing the entire Social Security number.
How many of you have requested a copy of an ancestor’s SS-5, or Social Security Application Form, based on information found in the SSDI? How many of you found the information obtained from this form (which can include much beyond just date of birth and death including parents’ full names, current employer, etc.) of little benefit? You can, of course, request a copy of the SS-5 without a Social Security number, but it requires more work and time on the part of the SSA to respond to your request, and costs more to boot.
There are serious issues faced by individuals who are not dead whose information is mistakenly reported in the Death Master File. The time and paperwork to prove that you are not dead can be overwhelming. But this would still be an issue whether the database is publicly available or not. The birth date of these living individuals would also be publicly available in the SSDI, but for most people this is information that can easily be obtained from other sources as well.
As Megan Smolenyak so eloquently stated in her article Are We Going to Lose the Social Security Death Index (SSDI)? “…removing the database won’t put a dent in the problem.” Closing the door to the SSDI won’t solve many of the problems the proposed legislation is trying to address, and there are other ramifications that perhaps the Senators and public have not considered. This database, as Megan points out, is used to good end by many people not immediately related to the deceased; use of the SSDI has helped investigators to solve cold cases as well as help identify next-of-kin for unclaimed coroner cases and soldiers whose remains have been recovered years or even decades after their death. The National Technical Information Service also points out use of the Death Master File by medical researchers, hospitals and oncology programs needing to track former patients and study subjects.
Also of note is the fact that the SSDI is not the only source of Social Security numbers available online. Ancestry.com has removed Social Security numbers from its SSDI database for deaths that have occurred within the past 10 years, but I can still access the Social Security number for my father-in-law who died in 2009 in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010, also online at Ancestry.com.
Rather than respond in panic or cave to public pressure and scrutiny, I would hope that the genealogy companies would instead focus on the needs of their customers by working with legislators to further educate them on the full range of issues involved, and perhaps find a compromise that better meets the need of both open access and privacy protection. Senator Bill Nelson, for example, is proposing stiffer penalties for those who steal identities for tax purposes as well as restricting public access to dead taxpayer’s information for at least a year after their death. That’s a far cry from removing the entire SSDI from public access, and also focuses on the problem (the illegal and immoral actions of the identity thieves themselves) rather than further restricting access to a valuable tool that was created for the purpose of deterring fraud. A change in IRS law, increasing the service’s legal authority to share information on identity theft cases with outside law enforcement authorities, or even with taxpayers themselves, would also better directly address the issue — a loophole closure that has been introduced in several bills since 2001 with little traction.
In the meantime, the full SSDI (including Social Security numbers) is still available for free on FamilySearch.org and by subscription (or through a free trial) at Ancestry.com. And anyone can purchase their own copy of the current database for as little as $1800 (updates require a subscription), subscribe for a year for as little as $600, or purchase limited queries (i.e. 100 queries for $300). With the information obtained from the SSDI you can easily order a copy of the SS-5 Social Security application online.
For genealogists and others looking for a way to express and share their views on this issue, I have linked to the contact pages for the four Senators above. You may also want to explore the following groups dedicated to genealogical/historical records access:
Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC)