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Keeping Watch Over Massachusetts Public Records
What You Can Do About Threats to the SSDI
The Massachusetts Genealogical Council (MGC) is an umbrella organization with both individual and organizational members interested in genealogical and historical research in Massachusetts, and who care about access to public records. MGC monitors legislation, both in Massachusetts and nationally, to ensure that our public records remain accessible. It's not as fun as doing genealogical research, but it is necessary work.
Image courtesy of the
SSDI stands for Social Security Death Index, the commercial term for the Social Security Administration (SSA) Death Master File (DMF). The DMF is a list of Social Security numbers of people now deceased and whose numbers may not be used by anyone ever again. The Death Master File was created by the SSA to address pension and other forms of benefit fraud, and when used properly, it does just that. It is considered a public document under the Freedom of Information Act, and is sold only by the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) of the U.S. Department of Commerce to commercial entities, only 1% of which are genealogical in nature.
The Arguments Against Open Access
There are two main objections to the DMF remaining public. The first is the illegal use of the SSNs of deceased children to claim deductions on income tax returns. What the criminals are doing is reprehensible, but does not warrant removing this important tool from our hands, especially since there are much better ways to control it. There is no indication that the information was gathered from genealogical websites. It would seem more likely that these were sold "out the back door" by unscrupulous workers who had access to them. Several articles in the Huffington Post, including "Why Thieves are Stealing Childhood Cancer Victims' Identities," explore the problem in detail and offer potential solutions such as heavy punishment for those who knowingly use the social security number of another person. See also "Social Security Check Fraud Targeted by Republican Lawmakers." Parents may want to question the advisability of obtaining numbers for newborns, a practice that was encouraged starting in the 1980s. The United States forbids national identity requirements, and SSNs are not needed until used for employment and tax purposes. In addition, the Social Security card itself requires a signature, which means that parents are holding on to unsigned cards for fifteen or more years.
Image courtesy of Federal Times
The only time the DMF does not stop fraud is when it is not used. Certain governmental agencies, the IRS in particular, do not consult it. If the IRS did actually examine the DMF, the problem of criminals using the SSNs of deceased children to claim tax deductions would not exist. The DMF is, in fact, the only control we have against criminal use of SSNs.
There is legislation afoot to close public access to the DMF. But since the problem we have with identity fraud is actually helped by consulting it, taking it away isn't going to help. That's like making public a list of convicted sexual predicators, and then taking it away because not everyone consulted it and someone was victimized.
The second reason given for closing the DMF is that the numbers of living people are making it into the Death Master File. When this happens, everything stops for that poor individual: no benefits, no driver's license, no mortgage, no identity. We've all heard the "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but you're dead," stories, and they are horrifying. It takes these unfortunate people years to reclaim their identities. But this is a result of a lack of quality control within the SSA that has nothing to do with public access. Errors in inputting could be introduced at any point in a long chain of processing, and as genealogists we know the increased likelihood of error each time a number is transcribed or copied. How does eliminating our access to the DMF stop this problem? It doesn't. It just means that we can't discover what the problem is on our own. It creates a curtain between us and records about ourselves that should not exist.
Some say the government could grant access to other entities. Financial institutions, hospitals, universities, funeral directors, credit agencies, attorneys and yes, genealogists all use the DMF on a daily basis. Who will decide which of these deserves access?
Most casual genealogists are researching far into the past and do not need the social security entries for anything other than establishing correct identity before moving backwards in time. As vital records in more and more states get restricted, the SSDI becomes an ever more important tool to beginning a genealogical search. Professionals work as heir-searchers, helping to settle estates, and clear titles and testifying as expert witnesses in court cases. Others work on repatriation cases for the US military. The recovered remains of previously unaccounted-for servicemen need to be identified via DNA obtainable only through proven family members. And primary next of kin is determined via kinship determination researched by genealogists. I know in my job as a case worker in repatriation cases I use the SSDI every day, over and over again. Without it I will become much less efficient at what I do.
How You Can Help
If this were all about me, I probably wouldn't care. I'd just take a lot longer to research each case, make more money and forget about it. But it isn't about me. It's about keeping our government transparent, efficient and sensible. I work under contract for the US Army, and as such am paid by them, albeit indirectly. The taxpayers are paying me, and I don't want to waste our money.
We all need to get to know our congressmen and women and let them know that genealogy stimulates business, brings patrons into libraries and archives, generates millions of tourist dollars, and is an important field to a nation composed largely of immigrants. Without open access to public records we cannot research our past. I'm hoping genealogists at all levels will get involved.
Follow RPAC, the Records Preservation and Access Committee, a joint committee with representatives from the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), the National Genealogical Society (NGS), and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS). RPAC's legal team works behind the scenes with politicians and legislators to help ensure that access to public records remains open. They are looking for some state liaisons in order to be able to reach out and educate genealogists across the country on issues of public access. Is your state one of them? I recommend that you subscribe to this blog and to the RPAC blog in order to stay current with what is happening. We also display the RPAC blog posts on our home page.
Another place where genealogists are gathering around this cause is the Occupy Genealogy group on Facebook. A new and enthusiastic group, it is still relatively unstructured but has lots of members who are passionate about this issue. This is a fantastic way to get the word out to many, many people.
Now is the time for action. Get to get to know your members of Congress so that you already have a relationship with them before you call them to register your concern with particular bills. Let them know you are a constituent and that you are passionate about this issue. Tell them your concerns. Follow RPAC, Occupy Genealogy and MGC. We all want to prevent identity fraud, but in a way that remains true to American democracy. Let's keep these records open for ourselves and our descendants!