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The St. Petersburg Times
Monday, October 19, 1998

Your 'secret' Social Security number
will soon reveal all about you

By Robyn E. Blumner

In "The Prisoner," the cult-classic television series of the '60s, a former British secret service agent, played by Patrick McGoohan, is kidnapped and taken to a place called "The Village," where he is known only as "No. 6." He repeatedly objects to this dehumanization, proclaiming: "I am not a number. I am a free man!" Get used to that refrain, because you might have to start using it yourself.

Privacy advocates have been working for years to keep our Social Security numbers from becoming a de facto national I.D. number, but the tide is against them. Today our Social Security numbers are routinely requested by everyone from medical insurers to the local video rental store. In a variety of legislative enactments, the federal government is encouraging the trend with new rules that further expand Social Security numbers beyond their originally intended use as our retirement system identifiers.

A provision of the 1996 welfare reform law requires that employers report Social Security numbers of all new hires to a government data base, which follows each of us from job to job, state to state. The purported purpose is to track down parents who are delinquent in child support, and it has helped some in that regard. But at the same time it has opened the door to the government watching our every move.

Now government officials, under a proposed federal rule implementing the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, want to imprint our Social Security numbers on our drivers' licenses. If you thought identity fraud was a horrifying prospect before, wait until the purse-snatcher not only gets your name and address but your Social Security number -- the key to all your financial information.

The idea behind the latest proposal is to make drivers' licenses into national I.D. cards, then make those I.D. cards a prerequisite for receiving federal benefits such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Congress is trying to deter illegal immigration by creating a tamper-proof form of identification that will frustrate illegal aliens who try, fraudulently, to get federal welfare and find jobs. Yet, the further the government goes in trying to stop illegal aliens from using fake I.D.s, the more privacy the rest of us give up.

Forcing states to add Social Security numbers to drivers' licenses and to perform computer checks on applicants will only add to the delays motorists now experience during renewal. But the real danger is in the ease with which these I.D. cards will be used to match up information about us stored in huge data bases under our national I.D. number, a.k.a. Social Security number. If the government wants to find out where you're working, your assets, if you have a criminal past, your driving record and, possibly in the future, your medical history, one number would get it all.

Thoreau is turning in his grave.

And it gets worse. Under another recent federal enactment, details about our medical history, HIV status, genetic defects and mental health will soon be collected under one number throughout our lives. The Health Insurance Portability Act of 1996 mandates that each of us be issued an I.D. number to be used whenever we access medical care. Some have suggested that one's Social Security number should double as our medical I.D. number.

The same law standardizes the computer language for medical record storage and requires doctors, hospitals and insurers to computerize patient records. That means our records will soon be computer accessible under one number given us by the government.

Don't be surprised that once a national I.D. card is established, everyone will require it to do business. Banks, airlines, department stores, will ask to see your Social Security number for each transaction. Libraries may start using it instead of a separate library card. Landlords may require it before renting apartments. Every purchase, move and life decision we make could be recorded and available to anyone who knows that number.

The push of technology is inexorable, but in order for the information age to benefit mankind without making each of us a collection of data, fully vetted with the click of a mouse, we must be able to choose to keep information about ourselves personal and private. It's easy to refuse to shop in a department store that requires our family history in order to make a purchase, but it's not so easy to get along without a driver's license.

There are proposals in Congress, such as the Citizen's Privacy Act of 1998 and other pending legislation, that would repeal the laws requiring Social Security numbers on drivers' licenses and medical I.D. numbers. Meanwhile, the next time someone asks you for your Social Security number, ask them why they need it and what they're going to do with it. If the answers aren't satisfactory, refuse to give it out.

Tell them: "I am not a number."

Robyn E. Blumner is an editorial writer and columnist at the St. Petersburg Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

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