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
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
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
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 email@example.com
NOTE: In accordance with Title 17
U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who
have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only. For more
information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml
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