My Insecure Social Security Card

In this day and age, we Americans anticipate—almost expect—to be asked for identification for a number of activities.  We understand that law enforcement and others entrusted with public safety have a right to know who we (and those around us) are.  So we produce our IDs to board airplanes and enter government buildings.  Even many non-government related acts, such as conducting bank transactions or buying alcohol or a pack of cigarettes, often require an examination of our IDs.

I thus find it entirely perplexing that our Federal Government still elects to issue Social Security cards that a teenager can replicate with astounding accuracy.

The mission of the Social Security Administration (SSA) is to “[d]eliver Social Security services that meet the changing needs of the public.”  The SSA records contributions made by employees, employers, and self-employed individuals, determines eligibility for various benefits, and makes distributions to about 60 million beneficiaries.  Also consider:

  1. Since the Social Security program began in the 1930s, the SSA has issued over 430 million Social Security numbers and cards.  An estimated 300 million belong to living number holders.
  2. Currently, there are no less than 50 valid versions of the Social Security card in circulation, many of which have little or no counterfeit protection.
  3. The SSA places wage items that cannot be properly posted to workers’ earnings records in the Earnings Suspense File (ESF).  Since 1937, 305 million wage items representing over $920 billion in earnings have been placed in the ESF.

The SSA reminds the public that its duties do NOT include protecting the integrity of one’s Social Security number or enforcing the nation’s employment and immigration laws.  Perhaps it is for these reasons that, while other governmental agencies constantly upgrade their identification documents with new counterfeit-proof features, the SSA continues to issue Social Security cards that have largely remained unchanged for decades.

This is true in spite of congressional directives to the contrary.  In 1983, the Social Security Act was amended to require the SSA to develop its first counterfeit-resistant Social Security card.  In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act required the SSA to develop a prototype counterfeit-resistant card.  In 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act required the SSA in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security to establish standards to better protect the SSN and card from counterfeiting, tampering, alteration, and theft.

Still, the SSA continues to simply admire the problem and has taken no meaningful steps to do what Congress has mandated the SSA to do.  For example, in response to the 1983 Act, the SSA introduced “counterfeit-resistant and tamper proof cards with security features including a blue tint random marbleized pattern, planchettes, and intaglio printing[,]” according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in August 1998.  Not surprisingly, “[m]embers of Congress subsequently expressed disappointment with the new card SSA developed[.]”

In response to the 2004 Act, the SSA did not even convene the required task force until late January 2006, virtually ensuring that it would not meet Congress’s implementation deadline of June 2006.  In a March 2006 report to the House’s Judiciary Committee, the GAO wrote that the SSA identified three options for enhancing the Social Security card and a fourth “option” that isn’t much of a solution at all:

First, the paper card could be made more counterfeit-resistant with features such as the use of paper with a fiber content that react to certain chemicals or security threads similar to those used in U.S. paper currency.  Second, the card could be plastic and include some machine-readable features such as a magnetic strip or secure bar code … Third, the card could include some form of biometrics that links the card to the cardholder, such as a fingerprint or a photograph.  Finally, SSA could eliminate the card and instead issue a letter with an individual’s Social Security number[.]”

According to this same report, the SSA did in fact make a decision to take action:

SSA officials told us that a preliminary decision had been made to develop an improved version of the current paper card and issue the improved cards only to new card applicants.”

The SSA’s current solution is … to do more of the same?  Really?

It is obvious that the SSA is completely content in doing nothing with respect to improving the security of our Social Security cards.  Yes, implementing a counterfeit-resistant card will be expensive and time-consuming.  Yes, there are logistical and policy-related challenges that must be addressed.  But the American people deserve something better than what it is currently getting from the SSA.  The antiquated Social Security cards of the 20th century must give way to a Social Security card more befitting of its place in the 21st century.

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