S. 141- Protecting the Privacy of Social Security Numbers Act

Senator Feinstein, introducing S.141 [pdf] in Congress today:

Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Mr. President, I am pleased to introduce legislation to protect one of Americans’ most valuable but vulnerable assets: Social Security numbers.

The bill I am introducing today aims to protect individual privacy and prevent identity theft by eliminating the unnecessary use and display of Social Security numbers.

I have been working since the 106th Congress to safeguard Social Security numbers. I believe that the widespread display and use of these numbers poses a significant, and entirely preventable threat to personal privacy.

In 1935, Congress authorized the Social Security Administration to issue Social Security numbers as part of the Social Security program. Since that time, Social Security numbers have become the best-known and easiest way to identify individuals in the United States.

Use of these numbers has expanded well beyond their original purpose. Social Security numbers are now used for everything from credit checks to rental agreements to employment verifications, among other purposes. They can be found in privately held databases and on public records–including marriage licenses, professional certifications, and countless other public documents–many of which are available on the Internet.

Once accessed, the numbers act like keys–allowing thieves to open credit card and bank accounts and even begin applying for government benefits.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, as many as 10 million Americans have their identities stolen by such thieves each year–at a combined cost of billions of dollars.

What’s worse, victims often do not realize that a theft has occurred until much later, when they learn that their credit has been destroyed by unpaid debt on fraudulently opened accounts.

One thief stole a retired Army captain’s military identification card and used his Social Security number, listed on the card, to go on a 6-month, $260,000 shopping spree. By the time the Army captain realized what had happened, the thief had opened more than 60 fraudulent accounts.

A single mother of two went to file her taxes and learned that a fraudulent return had already been filed in her name by someone else–a thief who wanted her refund check.

A former pro-football player received a phone call notifying him that a $1 million home mortgage loan had been approved in his name even though he had never applied for such a loan.

Identity theft is serious. Once an individual’s identity is stolen, people are often subjected to countless hours and costs attempting to regain their good name and credit. In 2004, victims spent an average of 300 hours recovering from the crime. The crime disrupts lives and can destroy finances.

It also hurts business. A 2006 online survey by the Business Software Alliance and Harris Interactive found that nearly 30 percent of adults decided to shop online less or not at all during the holiday season because of fears about identity theft.

When people’s identities are stolen, they often do not know how the thieves obtained their personal information. Social security numbers and other key identifying data are displayed and used in such a widespread manner that individuals could not successfully restrict access themselves.

Comprehensive limitations on the display of Social Security numbers are critically needed.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted studies of this problem in 2002 and 2007. Both times–in studies entitled “Social Security numbers Are Widely Used by Government and Could Be Better Protected” and “Social Security numbers: Use Is Widespread and Could Be Improved”–the GAO concluded that current protections are insufficient and that serious vulnerabilities remain.

The Protecting the Privacy of Social Security Numbers Act would require government agencies and businesses to do more to protect Americans’ Social Security numbers. The bill would stop the sale or display of a person’s Social Security number without his or her express consent; prevent Federal, State and local governments from displaying Social Security numbers on public records posted on the Internet; prohibit the printing of Social Security numbers on government checks; prohibit the employing of inmates for tasks that give them access to the Social Security numbers of other individuals; limit the circumstances in which businesses could ask a customer for his or her Social Security number; commission a study by the Attorney General regarding the current uses of Social Security numbers and the impact on privacy and data security; and institute criminal and civil penalties for misuse of Social Security numbers.

This legislation is simple. It is also critical to stopping the growing epidemic of identity theft that has been plaguing America and its citizens.

As the President’s Identity Theft Task Force reported last year, “[i]dentity theft depends on access to ….. data. Reducing the opportunities for thieves to get the data is critical to fighting the crime.”

Every agency to study this problem has agreed that the problem will continue to grow over time and that action is needed.

I urge my colleagues to support the Protecting the Privacy of Social Security Numbers Act. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the RECORD.

There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

[text of bill]

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