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Abstract

In the face of technology which allows for the storage and sharing of information on individuals in an unprecedented way, individuals still maintain the right to informational privacy. However, the extensive use of Social Security numbers as universal identifiers is one of the most serious manifestations of privacy concerns in the United States. Numerous private sources, such as financial institutions and blood banks, and governmental sources, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the courts, use these numbers as identifiers either by voluntary choice or as required by law. Inadequate restrictions on these uses have led to serious violations of privacy and related problems. However, there is an alarming lack of legal response to these concerns. Legal limitations on the requesting, use and dissemination of Social Security numbers have been ineffective. For example, the efficacy of the main source of federal restrictions on Social Security number usage by government, section 7 of the Privacy Act of 1974, has been minimized by numerous exceptions granted by Congress for Social Security number collection and use. In addition, this provision contains no restrictions on private actors. Also, while the widespread use of Social Security numbers and the potential for their misuse by private actors led Congress to enact criminal statutes forbidding such illegal use, these statutes penalize the illegal distribution of Social Security numbers, but do not provide a criminal remedy for the illegal request of a Social Security number. Similarly, state laws, although reaching a few private actors, contain no general prohibitions against Social Security number use or collection. While a number of arguments exist both for and against a prohibition on the collection and use of personal information generally, problems presented by the widespread use and dissemination of Social Security numbers necessitate a legal solution. Although courts currently recognize that Social Security number dissemination may constitute an invasion of privacy, the courts rarely authorize a remedy for such invasions. The courts have been too cautious in construing the common-law tort of misappropriation in this area. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 600, introduced in 1997, shows some promise as a legislative solution. The bill changes the current system, which allows a person to choose to prohibit distribution of the information, and requires a person to make an affirmative choice to have information distributed. While this proposal eliminates a lot of the private dissemination of Social Security numbers existing today, it still has some deficiencies which must be addressed.

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