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Proposed legislation could eliminate public access to historical research data

Proposed legislation could eliminate public access to historical research data

I know that my topic is “Chicago’s Strange and Haunted History” but I wanted to take some time out to talk about some recent proposed legislation that would severely hamper historical researchers in general under the guise of being an “Anti-Identity Theft” measure.  It is officially called H.R. 3475 and has the warm and fuzzy name of “Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011”

Now come on!  Who could possibly oppose a bill called “Keeping IDs Safe Act”  It also is conveniently abbreviated “KIDs Safe Act of 2011”  On the surface it sounds great but what is it really?

The end result of the act would be to deny any public access to what is commonly known as the Social Security Death Index or S.S.D.I.  It has been maintained as the Social Security Death Master File since 1936 however the free online version, which used to be available at Rootsweb contains mostly records from 1962 to the present.

The index is a database of death information reported to the Social Security Administration upon a SSA participant’s death.  In a nutshell it (the online version) contains information on the deaths of about 96% of all social security card holders since roughly 1962.  The info it contains includes name, date of birth, date of death, state of issue and zip code where last benefit was sent.  The reason that it is important to researchers is the fact that many times we don’t know when or where a relative died in order to look for obituaries or death records.  If you don’t know where your relative died good luck tracing down a death record since every state and county is separate.  Of course you could request a death certificate from every county in the country but at roughly $20.00 each it would get pretty expensive.  Other uses of the database include probate researchers and groups that help locate relatives of American service men and women who have been MIA or KIA in an effort to identify remains.  Many of the groups are made up of volunteers.

So how would eliminating access to the SSDI help prevent identity theft?  The short answer is that it would do nothing to prevent identity theft.  In fact one of the reasons behind the SSDI originally was that it gave employers and organizations the ability to check a social security number to see if someone was trying to pass themselves off as a deceased person.

As a former criminal investigator I know that it would be better for a person to just make up a SSN out of thin air and maybe never get caught vs. using the SSN of a deceased person which would basically guarantee that they would be caught.

Could there be a monetary reason for denying the public access to this information?  Why funny you should ask.  In fact there is.  As I mentioned previously in the article RootsWeb has been a wonderful and FREE way for genealogists and historians to share information over the Internet.  In fact until recently the SSDI was offered free of charge at the website.  In 2000, The Generations Network (TGN) parent company of stepped in and took over Rootsweb and continued to fund it as a free resource.  Of course any information that you submitted could then be used or transferred over to their pay site,   Amazingly, supposedly because of political pressure, they removed the SSDI from free access via Rootsweb.  Of course you can still access the information if you purchase an membership.

Don’t get me wrong, I subscribe to and love the site.  I use it constantly in my work.  The question I have is why all of a sudden is it bad to offer it free of charge and O.K. to offer it as long as you pay for it.

I also find it hilarious that if you want your own FULL COPY of the public database you can order it online through the U.S. Department of Commerce for the bargain subscription rate of $7,245.00.

I cannot do justice to all the ways that the SSDI benefits different groups and how little it adds (if anything) to the threat of identity theft.  Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak has been a great advocate of genealogists everywhere and recently published a very good article that I suggest everyone, including our Congress, read.

After you read Megan’s article if you could please take a moment to sign my petition to the sponsors and co-sponsors of the Keeping IDs Safe Act.  I am hoping to get at least 10,000 signatures together and am hoping to let our representatives know how important it is to keep free public information free.

I am also including a site that you can go to that determines who your U.S. Representatives are and you can automatically let them know if you support or oppose this particular bill. 

I am hoping that this whole business is nothing more than a few good-intentioned, although misinformed, public servants attempting to keep us safe and they can move on to more important things like maybe our economy.

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