Dear IAJGS Leaders:
You have read my recent postings on the SSDI and SSA-5 recent developments
which will severely hamper genealogists access to relevant information--
Social Security numbers that are on "protected" death records and
applicant's parents names that are included on SSA-5 applications that are
less than 100 years of age with proof of death or 125 years with no proof of
The IAJGS is taking this assault on access to information very seriously,
not only independently through the Public Records Access Monitoring
Committee (PRAMC), but as a managing member of the Records Preservation and
Access Committee (RPAC) which is comprised of representatives of the FGS,
IAJGS, NGS, APG, BCG, FamilySearch, American Society of Genealogists,
Ancestry.com and ProQuest.
I have spoken with staff at the House Ways and Means Committee about their
potential hearings which the subcommittee chairman on Social Security,
Congressman Sam Johnson (R- Texas) has called for--which will be held in
early 2012. The subcommittee members are most interested in the effect
identity theft has on the tax code with people not being able to access any
tax refunds, etc. and of course the precipitating issue of child identity
theft where a deceased child's Social Security number was used by someone to
declare the deceased child (not theirs) as a dependent on their taxes for a
I have talked with the legal counsel of the FGS, who also serves on RPAC
and the genealogical community is very concerned about the recent
developments and we are discussing what we can do as a unified community
when various hearings will be held. We must let the leaders understand that
genealogy is not "just a hobby" but a critical tool in detecting family
inherited diseases and access to full records to assure that we are looking
at the correct information is essential. Knowing a deceased person's Social
Security number is a way of tying different records to the correct person.
The parents names on the SSA-5 forms are essential to tracing back on both
the parents' sides, as mother's maiden names are included on the SSA-5's.
Thanks to Rand Fishbein, a member of JGS Greater Washington and a member of
the JewishGen Board of Governors, who shared a letter addressed to
"colleagues" by US Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) encouraging Members (of
Congress) to support an initiative to end the posting on genealogy websites
of Social Security numbers belonging to deceased individuals. Quoting Rand:
"The Senator believes that such postings contribute to identity theft and
are an unwelcome infringement on the privacy rights of citizens. Needless to
say, if this effort succeeds, it is sure to have a significant impact on the
family history research community." Senator Brown serves as the Chairman of
the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Social Security.
Paragraph 7 below shows the lack of understanding of what genealogists
require and why! As the letter is not posted to an accessible website, I am
copying it below: (I purposely did not mention the name of the constituent)
[Note: the Death Master File is the basis of the Social Security Death
November 14, 2011
I encourage you to join me in writing letters to genealogy websites urging
them to remove and no longer post the Social Security numbers of deceased
Earlier this year, I learned of the plight of my constituent, XXXX. In the
wake of her three-month old daughter's death, XXXX discovered that her
daughter's Social Security number was posted on various genealogy websites
and that her daughter's Social Security number had been fraudulently used on
an IRS Tax return filing.
In response to XXX situation, I sent letters to the Social Security
Administration (SSA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Chief
Executive Officer of Ancestry.com. I encouraged the FTC and SSA to
investigate the practices of websites like Ancestry.com, and asked the FTC
to work with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to ensure victims of this
type of tax fraud are provided with a prompt remedy.
Social Security numbers of deceased individuals are available to the public
through the Death Master File (DMF), which contains information on more than
82 million deceased individuals. The SSA created the DMF as the result of
the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit where the court held that,
based on the Privacy Act, an individual's privacy rights are extinguished at
death and required the SSA to release the Social Security number, surname,
and date of death of deceased individuals.
The SSA provides the data that compromises the DMF to the Department of
Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which sells the
data to various entities such as Federal, state and local governments;
financial, investigative, credit reporting, and medical research
organizations; and public customers--including genealogy websites.
Many DMF purchasers use the data to prevent fraud by updating financial
information and freezing deceased persons' accounts. But, DMF data can also
be used for fraudulent purposes. We are all aware that identity theft is
growing problem, and posting such personally identifiable information on
publicly available genealogy websites is an easy mark for criminals.
Genealogy websites are not violating the law in posting Social Security
numbers, but genealogical research must be balanced against the need to
protect individuals and families from identity theft and fraud. Given the
breadth of information available on these websites--full names, birth dates
and death dates--Social Security numbers provide little additional benefit
to family history researchers.
Please join me in the effort to educate genealogy websites about the
unintended consequences of making Social Security numbers readily available
to the public. Letters will be sent to the following companies due to their
disclosure of Social Security numbers on their websites:
Ancestry.com; Genealogy.com; Familysearch.com; GenealogyBank.com,
Genealogy.About.com, Ssdi-search.com, Familytreemagazine.com, vitalrec.com
If you would like to sign onto the letters or have any questions, please
contact Erin Richardson in Senator Brown's office at 202-224-2315 or
Unites States Senator"
Accompanying this was a model letter to Ancestry.com asking them to remove
and no longer post Social Security numbers on their website as it leads to
It is interesting to note that the NTIS website lists a reason for the SSDI
as an identity theft deterrent.
We have all read about computer hacking into government and financial
services organizations which leads to identity theft. I have not read any
cases that have tied identity theft to the posting of Social Security
numbers on genealogy websites as the cause. If any of you are aware of such
reports, I would appreciate your sharing them with me.
Jan Meisels Allen
IAJGS Vice President
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee