Inspectors General Find Federal Agencies Lax in Safeguarding Social Security Numbers

WASHINGTON – Today, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, and Representative E. Clay Shaw, Jr. (R-FL), Chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, released a report finding that many federal agencies are not adequately protecting the confidentiality of individual Social Security numbers. The report, entitled “Federal Agencies’ Control over the Access, Disclosure and Use of Social Security Numbers by External Entities,” found that 14 of the 15 federal agencies reviewed lacked adequate controls over contractor access to their databases or files that contain Social Security numbers.

“Personal information such as names, addresses, and even credit card numbers are easily acquired by those seeking to commit fraud,” Collins said Tuesday. “An individual’s Social Security number is often the last line of defense against a successful attempt to commit identity theft. Yet despite the urgent need to keep Social Security numbers confidential, this report clearly shows that the federal agencies are not properly protecting this personal information. Congress must ensure that such lapses come to an abrupt end.”

Shaw agreed, saying, “The Social Security number, so woven into the fabric of American society, has become a key for any unscrupulous individual, including terrorists, to unlock the door to an individual’s identity. These report findings are particularly disturbing since Federal programs require the use of Social Security numbers and, therefore, have the utmost responsibility to protect them. Shortly, I will reintroduce legislation to enhance Social Security number privacy and help prevent identity theft. Congress and the Administration must act now to address Americans’ fears,” Shaw said.

The report found that in one case, an agency had allowed contractor employees access to its database before the employees’ background checks were completed. Contractors at another agency were maintaining personal identifying information in unlocked file cabinets or storage rooms. Others were leaving sensitive records on desktops or open shelves after normal working hours. One agency could not even systematically identify the contractors who had access to this sensitive information. Federal agencies often rely on contractors to provide public services, such as health and retirement benefits.

The report, issued by the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General, was compiled by the Offices of Inspector General at 15 federal agencies on behalf of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency. It follows up on a recent General Accounting Office study examining the extent to which federal, state and local government agencies use Social Security numbers, and how they safeguard records containing those numbers (GAO-02-352). The Inspectors General report can be found on the Committee’s Internet site at