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    SSA Inspector General: 20,000 Live People Are Mistakenly Listed as Dead

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    The Social Security Administration’s Inspector General has issued a report (pdf) detailing problems with the agency’s Death Master File (DMF):

    Since January 2004, SSA’s publication of the DMF has resulted in the breach of [personally identifiable information] for more than 20,000 living individuals erroneously listed as deceased on the DMF. SSA made these individuals’ SSNs; first, middle, and last names; dates of birth and death; and State and zip codes of last known residences available to users of the DMF before learning they were not actually deceased. […] Public disclosure of living individuals’ [personally identifiable information] increases the opportunity for identity theft and subjects SSA to criticism from the affected individuals, the public and Congress and could subject SSA to legal action.

    The Inspector General explains how negatively individuals can be affected by this false information. Besides allowing for living individuals’ personally identifiable information to be publicly released in the DMF, “[e]rroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination, cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected individuals[.]” Social Security data is highly valuable to identity thieves, who use their victims’ information to open credit card accounts, take out mortgages and more.

    The Social Security Administration has been heavily criticized for its inaccurate recordkeeping, and the agency has admitted its files are full of errors. According to the Inspector General:

    SSA’s policies and procedures openly acknowledge the occurrence of death reporting errors and state, “Occasionally, living individuals are erroneously included in the DMF (e.g., due to inaccurate death reports or inaccurate data input)." Because SSA realizes it cannot guarantee the accuracy of information published in the DMF, it formally disclaims the accuracy of the DMF contents and advises DMF customers/subscribers that not all information contained within is verified.

    In May, I co-authored a white paper (pdf) detailing the privacy, civil liberty, and security problems with the Department of Homeland Security’s national identification scheme: REAL ID Implementation Review: Few Benefits, Staggering Costs. It includes a discussion of the myriad mistakes in Social Security databases.

    In it, I note one example: In December 2006, the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General estimated (pdf) that about 17.8 million records in NUMIDENT (the database used for employment eligibility verification) have discrepancies with name, date of birth or death, or citizenship status. About 13 million of these incorrect records belong to U.S. citizens.

    More coverage on the latest Inspector General report is available at Federal Computer Week.

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