US Senator Calls For Removal of All Social Security Numbers From Genealogy Websites Posting SSDI

Posted by: Jan Meisels Allen

On November 13 I posted to this blog about protected state death records being removed from the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) effective November 1. Additionally, Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX) would be calling for hearings on removal of SSN’s sometime in 2012. Now we have learned that the there is a movement to remove all Social Security numbers from all genealogy web sites as a US Senator believes having them posted on the Internet are a cause of identity theft. (The precipitating issue is the same- a deceased child's identity was stolen- they are two different deceased children involved).

There are many newspaper articles on computer hacking into government and financial services organizations where Social Security Numbers (SSN) are stolen—there have not been any known reports that theft occurred due stealing SSN’s from genealogy websites that post the SSDI. A recent news article where theft of computer tapes with 4.9 million Tricare beneficiaries SSN, birth dates, phone numbers etc. have been stolen is another proof that there is a different source, than genealogy sites of SSN used for identity theft

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Thanks to Rand Fishbein, a member of JGS Greater Washington and a member of the JewishGen Board of Governors, who shared a letter, addressed to "Dear Colleagues" by US Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) encouraging Members (of Congress) to support an initiative to end the posting on genealogy websites of Social Security numbers belonging to deceased individuals. Quoting Rand: "The Senator believes that such postings contribute to identity theft and are an unwelcome infringement on the privacy rights of citizens. Needless to say, if this effort succeeds, it is sure to have a significant impact on the family history research community. “Senator Brown serves as the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Social Security. Paragraph 7 below shows the lack of understanding of what genealogists require and why! As the letter is not posted to an accessible website I am copying it below: (I purposely did not mention the name of the constituent) [Note: the Death Master File is the basis of the Social Security Death Index]

Sherrod Brown
US Senate

November 14, 2011

"Dear Colleague:

I encourage you to join me in writing letters to genealogy websites urging them to remove and no longer post the Social Security numbers of deceased individuals.

Earlier this year, I learned of the plight of my constituent, XXXX. In the wake of her three-month old daughter’s death, XXXX discovered that her daughter's Social Security number was posted on various genealogy websites and that her daughter's Social Security number had been fraudulently used on an IRS Tax return filing.

In response to XXX situation, I sent letters to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Chief Executive Officer of I encouraged the FTC and SSA to investigate the practices of websites like, and asked the FTC to work with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to ensure victims of this
type of tax fraud are provided with a prompt remedy.

Social Security numbers of deceased individuals are available to the public through the Death Master File (DMF), which contains information on more than 82 million deceased individuals. The SSA created the DMF as the result of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit where the court held that, based on the Privacy Act, an individual's privacy rights are extinguished at
death and required the SSA to release the Social Security number, surname, and date of death of deceased individuals.

The SSA provides the data that compromises the DMF to the Department of Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which sells the data to various entities such as Federal, state and local governments; financial, investigative, credit reporting, and medical research organizations; and public customers--including genealogy websites.

Many DMF purchasers use the data to prevent fraud by updating financial information and freezing deceased persons' accounts. But, DMF data can also be used for fraudulent purposes. We are all aware that identity theft is growing problem, and posting such personally identifiable information on publicly available genealogy websites is an easy mark for criminals.

Genealogy websites are not violating the law in posting Social Security numbers, but genealogical research must be balanced against the need to protect individuals and families from identity theft and fraud. Given the breadth of information available on these websites--full names, birth dates and death dates--Social Security numbers provide little additional benefit to family history researchers.

Please join me in the effort to educate genealogy websites about the unintended consequences of making Social Security numbers readily available to the public. Letters will be sent to the following companies due to their disclosure of Social Security numbers on their websites:;';,,,,

If you would like to sign onto the letters or have any questions, please contact Erin Richardson in Senator Brown's office at 202-224-2315 or

Sherrod Brown
Unites States Senator"

Accompanying this was a model letter to asking them to remove and no longer post Social Security numbers on their website as it leads to identity theft.

The IAJGS is taking these recent access issues very seriously. When there is more information on either of the proposed hearings --House Ways and Means and Senate Appropriations it will be posted.

Jan Meisels Allen
IAJGS Vice President
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee

1 comment:

  1. I recently had to file an appeal to the SSA regarding a decision they made on my FOIA request. I haven't ordered many social security number applications since my early days researching the family history but I requested one for a grand-aunt who passed away earier this year. The SSA cashed my check and sent me a copy of her application with the place of birth and parents' names blocked out claiming that they were protecting the privacy of her parents who might still be alive and that releasing that information results in no benefit to the public. I don't know how long they've been doing this but obviously no thought was put into their processing my request...those parents they are trying to protect would be 110 years old today, at least. The info they blocked out is the only info on the form worth $27. I'm still waiting for a response. Personally I'm in favor of the govt drawing a line somewhere for privacy concerns but they need to use some common sense in deciding where that line is drawn.


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