The Price of the Right to Access
In a matter not atypical for the U.S. Congress, senators and representatives are attempting to change public opinion by passing legislation that accomplishes two things. First, it does nothing to solve the actual problems. And second, it actually does harm to others.
Access to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is under attack from members of both sides of the aisle. Public paranoia about identity theft has grown dramatically. And the media does little to call attention to the real problems and more to feed the paranoia.
The actual problem is that government agencies (and corporations as well) are not taking the necessary (and easy) steps to protect us against fraud. Whenever an individual uses a Social Security number, the government or company should consult the SSDI to ensure that it is valid.
Unfortunately, all too often, they neglect to take this simple step. The news media was full of reports lately about the Internal Revenue Service providing billions of dollars in false refunds to scammers. Apparently checking against the government’s own database to ensure the SSNs are valid is not part of the official refund process.
Bills have now been introduced to Congress to close public access to the SSDI. All this in the name of protecting the public from identity theft. Unfortunately, this will not only not protect us, it will make it more difficult for non-government organizations to help protect us. It also does nothing to address the procedural problems in governmental agencies that are contributing to the problem in the first place.
Judy Russell (The Legal Genealogist) wrote a great piece in her blog about how genealogists are losing the battle to maintain public access. Her analysis of the situation is quite well done. Recent bills have called for a 12– to 36–month delay in access to records. This may not harm the average genealogists, but those who make their living by tracing the descendants of those in the past (to identify survivors of those lost in past military altercations, for example) would have a much more difficult time.
To keep up to date with the actions around the SSDI, check with the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC). RPAC updates its blog frequently to let you know about recent Congressional actions and what you can do. As Judy says at the close of her post: There’s a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” For us, as genealogists, the price of our right to access public records is our vigilance.