Social Security Administration: Disclosure Policy for Law	 
Enforcement Allows Information Sharing, but SSA Needs to Ensure  
Consistent Application (30-SEP-03, GAO-03-919). 		 
                                                                 
Law enforcement agencies' efforts to investigate the events of	 
September 11th increased awareness that federal agencies collect 
and maintain personal information on individuals such as name,	 
social security number, and date of birth that could be useful to
law enforcement. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is one 
of the country's primary custodians of personal information.	 
Although the Privacy Act protects much of this information,	 
generally, federal agencies can disclose information to law	 
enforcement. However, determining when the need for disclosure	 
takes priority over an individual's privacy is not clear. GAO was
asked to describe (1) SSA's disclosure policy for law enforcement
and how it compares with the Privacy Act and those of other	 
federal agencies, (2) SSA's experience sharing information with  
law enforcement, and (3) law enforcement's experience obtaining  
information under SSA's policy. 				 
-------------------------Indexing Terms------------------------- 
REPORTNUM:   GAO-03-919 					        
    ACCNO:   A08616						        
  TITLE:     Social Security Administration: Disclosure Policy for Law
Enforcement Allows Information Sharing, but SSA Needs to Ensure  
Consistent Application						 
     DATE:   09/30/2003 
  SUBJECT:   Federal social security programs			 
	     Information disclosure				 
	     Interagency relations				 
	     Law enforcement agencies				 
	     Privacy law					 
	     Social security number				 
	     Policies and procedures				 

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GAO-03-919

United States General Accounting Office

GAO

                       Report to Congressional Requesters

September 2003

                                SOCIAL SECURITY
                                 ADMINISTRATION

Disclosure Policy for Law Enforcement Allows Information Sharing, but SSA Needs
                        to Ensure Consistent Application

GAO-03-919

Highlights of GAO-03-919, a report to congressional requesters

Law enforcement agencies' efforts to investigate the events of September
11th increased awareness that federal agencies collect and maintain
personal information on individuals such as name, social security number,
and date of birth that could be useful to law enforcement. The Social
Security Administration (SSA) is one of the country's primary custodians
of personal information. Although the Privacy Act protects much of this
information, generally, federal agencies can disclose information to law
enforcement. However, determining when the need for disclosure takes
priority over an individual's privacy is not clear. GAO was asked to
describe (1) SSA's disclosure policy for law enforcement and how it
compares with the Privacy Act and those of other federal agencies, (2)
SSA's experience sharing information with law enforcement, and (3) law
enforcement's experience obtaining information under SSA's policy.

GAO recommends that the SSA Commissioner take steps (1) to ensure that its
policy is consistently applied across all offices and (2) to provide
information on the disclosure policy and procedures to law enforcement
entities at all levels of government. SSA raised some concerns but
generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-919.

To view the full report, including the scope and methodology, click on the
link above. For more information, contact Barbara Bovbjerg, 202-512-7215,
[email protected]

September 2003

SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

Disclosure Policy for Law Enforcement Allows Information Sharing, but SSA Needs
to Ensure Consistent Application

Although SSA's disclosure policy permits the sharing of information with
law enforcement entities, it is more restrictive than the Privacy Act and
the disclosure policies of most federal agencies. While the Privacy Act
permits disclosures to law enforcement for any type of crime, SSA only
allows disclosures under certain conditions. For example, for serious and
violent crimes, SSA will disclose information to law enforcement if the
individual whose information is sought has been indicted or convicted of
that crime. Even when information is disclosed, it might be limited to
results obtained from verifying a social security number and name unless
the investigation concerns fraud in SSA or other federal benefit programs,
then the agency can work with law enforcement officials as part of a task
force or joint investigation. However, the disclosure policies for law
enforcement of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Census Bureau,
both of which have requirements prescribed in their statutes, are also
more restrictive than the Privacy Act and the policies of most federal
agencies. SSA officials consider SSA's disclosure policy integral to
carrying out the agency's mission.

The various restrictions in SSA's disclosure policy create a complex
policy that is confusing and could cause inconsistent application across
the agency's more than 1,300 field offices. This could result in uneven
treatment of law enforcement requests. Because aggregated data were not
available, GAO was unable to assess the extent to which SSA does not
consistently apply its policy. However, GAO was told of instances in which
SSA officials in some field offices did not give law enforcement
information that appeared to be permitted under the policy as well as
instances in which they gave them more than what appeared to be allowed.

Generally, law enforcement officials find the limited information SSA
shares useful to their investigation, but many law enforcement officials,
particularly state and local law enforcement officials, are not familiar
with the policy or the process for requesting information from SSA. Most
law enforcement officials expressed a desire for more information than is
currently permitted under SSA's policy, but SSA maintains that providing
more information would hurt its ability to carry out its primary mission.

Personal Information SSA Discloses

Sources: GAO and copyright (c) Corel Corp. All rights reserved.

Contents

  Letter

Results in Brief
Background
SSA's Disclosure Policy Allows Information Sharing with Law

Enforcement under Certain Conditions, but is More Restrictive than the
Privacy Act

SSA Has Provided Information to Law Enforcement Officials, but Confusion
about the Disclosure Policy May Cause Inconsistent Application

While Some Law Enforcement Officers Were Unfamiliar with the Policy, Most
Were Generally Satisfied with the Information Shared

Conclusions
Recommendations
Agency Comments and Our Evaluation

                                       1

                                      2 4

                                       7

20

24 27 28 28

Appendix I Scope and Methodology

Appendix II 	Chief Financial Officers' Act Agencies' Rules on Disclosure
of Records to Law Enforcement

Appendix III Comments from the Social Security Administration

  Appendix IV GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments 41

GAO Contacts 41 Staff Acknowledgments 41

  Tables

Table 1: Exceptions Permitted under the Privacy Act for Disclosing
Information 6

Table 2: Number of Information Requests Granted to Law Enforcement by OIG
Field Divisions and Headquarters in Fiscal Years 2000 through 2002 24

  Figure

Figure 1: SSA's Disclosure Policy for Law Enforcement 12

Abbreviations

CD-ROM Compact Disc-Read-Only Memory
CFO Chief Financial Officer
CFR Code of Federal Regulations
FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation
FOIA Freedom of Information Act
FR Federal Register
ICE DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department of

Homeland Security INS Immigration and Naturalization Service IRC Internal
Revenue Code IRS Internal Revenue Service MOU memorandum of understanding
OIG Office of the Inspector General OMB Office of Management and Budget
POMS Program Operations Manual System SSA Social Security Administration
SSI Supplemental Security Income SSN Social Security number USC United
States Code

This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright
protection in the United States. It may be reproduced and distributed in
its entirety without further permission from GAO. However, because this
work may contain copyrighted images or other material, permission from the
copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to reproduce this material
separately.

United States General Accounting Office Washington, DC 20548

September 30, 2003

The Honorable F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr.
Chairman
Committee on the Judiciary
House of Representatives

The Honorable E. Clay Shaw, Jr.
Chairman
Subcommittee on Social Security
Committee on Ways and Means
House of Representatives

Law enforcement agencies' efforts to investigate the events of September
11th increased awareness that federal agencies collect and maintain
personal information on individuals that could be useful to law
enforcement in helping them locate and prosecute individuals responsible
for crimes. Federal agencies maintain personal information such as name,
social security number (SSN), and address in their databases. For
example, the Social Security Administration (SSA), the federal agency
responsible for administering three major benefit programs and issuing
SSNs, is one of the country's primary custodians of personal information,
maintaining records on 290 million living individuals. To protect personal
information collected by all federal agencies, including SSA, the Congress
passed the Privacy Act in 1974. The Privacy Act generally requires the
individual affected to give consent before a federal agency discloses
personal information the agency maintains in certain records and retrieves
using the individual's name or other identifying information. However,
there are 12 exceptions to the restrictions placed on federal agencies for
disclosing this personal information, one of which permits disclosure to
law enforcement agencies as long as certain criteria are met.

The Privacy Act protects individuals' privacy while, at the same time,
allowing individuals' personal information to be disclosed for appropriate
purposes, such as assisting law enforcement. Determining when the need
for disclosure takes priority over an individual's privacy is not always
clear. With an eye toward finding an appropriate balance between
protection and disclosure of personal information, the Congress asked us
to describe: (1) SSA's disclosure policy for law enforcement purposes and
how it compares to the Privacy Act and other federal agencies, (2) SSA's
experience sharing information with law enforcement agencies, and

(3) law enforcement's experience in obtaining information under SSA's
disclosure policy.

To provide information on these issues, we compared SSA's disclosure
policy for law enforcement with the Privacy Act and with disclosure
policies of the other 23 federal agencies covered by the Chief Financial
Officers' Act. Because the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Bureau
of the Census, like SSA, are similar in size and scope of data maintained
on individuals, we also compared SSA's disclosure policy with those of IRS
and Census. We also made site visits and interviewed officials about their
experiences with SSA's disclosure policy at SSA headquarters; SSA regional
and field offices; SSA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG); and
federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. In addition, we
surveyed a random sample of SSA field offices and all SSA OIG field
offices for investigations to obtain information on law enforcement
requests and disclosures between fiscal years 1999 and 2002. The
information provided by all entities was self-reported. We conducted our
work between August 2002 and July 2003 in accordance with generally
accepted government auditing standards. For additional information on our
scope and methodology, see appendix I.

While SSA's policy permits the sharing of information with law enforcement
under certain conditions, it is more restrictive than the law enforcement
exception specified under the Privacy Act and the policies of most federal
agencies. SSA's disclosure policy requires SSA officials to consider
several factors such as the nature of the alleged criminal activity of the
individual on whom information is requested, what information has been
requested, and which agency has made the request. These requirements stem
from a confidentiality policy established in 1937 that prohibited most
disclosures. SSA is also the custodian of tax information, which can only
be disclosed as permitted in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). With regard
to nontax information, SSA modified its policy subsequent to the enactment
of the Privacy Act, to permit disclosures, but only for certain types of
crimes or under certain conditions. For example, the Privacy Act allows
the sharing of information on individuals who are the subjects of criminal
investigations regardless of the type of crimes but under SSA's policy, if
the type of crime is considered violent and serious, individuals must have
been indicted or convicted of the crime before information is shared. SSA
maintains that it must have a restrictive disclosure policy because much
of the information the agency maintains was initially obtained under a
pledge of confidentiality. Unlike SSA, the policies of most major federal
agencies allow the disclosure of information

  Results in Brief

to law enforcement if the requests for information meet the requirements
outlined in the Privacy Act. However, the disclosure policies of IRS and
Census-two agencies that also maintain information on millions of
individuals-have disclosure requirements prescribed in their statutes that
are also more restrictive than the Privacy Act and the policies of most
federal agencies. The IRS statute prohibits disclosing certain taxpayer
information to other federal departments and agencies without specific
statutory authorization. The Census Bureau's statute does not authorize
any disclosures of individual census data to law enforcement.

Although SSA's policy supports sharing tax information as permitted by the
IRC and limited nontax information with law enforcement under certain
conditions, some SSA field office staff appear confused about the policy
and may be applying it inconsistently. Law enforcement can request
information from any SSA field office, including OIG offices. On the basis
of our random sample of field offices, we estimate that 82 percent of
these offices received requests for personal information from law
enforcement agencies. The information most frequently shared was the
result of name and SSN verification. Through our site visits and survey
results, we were told about both instances in which it appeared that SSA
field offices denied law enforcement requests when they could have
provided information and instances in which it seemed that offices
provided more information than was permitted under SSA's policy.

While some law enforcement officials were unfamiliar with SSA's disclosure
policies, most were generally satisfied with the information provided by
SSA, though most wanted more. Some law enforcement agencies at the state
and local level were unfamiliar with the process for obtaining information
and expressed frustration. These law enforcement agencies frequently were
unfamiliar with the process for obtaining information until after making
initial requests to SSA field offices and, in some instances, they told us
that they had their requests turned down because they did not follow
procedures. Federal law enforcement agencies, on the other hand, were more
familiar with the procedures for obtaining information from SSA. Law
enforcement officials at all levels indicated that the SSN and name
verification SSA provided was often helpful to their investigations.
However, most wanted SSA to provide additional information such as
address, date of birth, and employer or family information. Some law
enforcement officers told us that they wanted SSA to expand the
circumstances under which disclosures could be made. However, SSA
officials expressed concern that expanding SSA's disclosure policy would
hamper the agency's ability to ensure that

Background

individuals' personal information is protected and that resources are not
diverted from administering Social Security benefit programs.

We make recommendations in this report that the Commissioner of SSA take
steps to ensure consistent application of the disclosure policy for law
enforcement in all of the agency's offices and better assist law
enforcement agencies making requests, so that they understand the
procedures for making requests.

In its comments on a draft of this report, SSA raised some concerns, but
generally agreed with our recommendations and believed in some instances,
the agency was already taking steps to address the issues we raised.
However, SSA expressed concern that our draft report did not completely
describe the statutory basis and rationale behind SSA's disclosure policy,
and therefore our findings and recommendations are "overbroad". We believe
our findings and recommendations are well grounded; however, we have made
some clarifications in this report in response to SSA's comments.

With virtually billions of records, the federal government is the largest
single producer, collector, and user of information in the United States.
In order to carry out the various missions of the federal government,
federal agencies collect and maintain personal information such as name,
date of birth, address, and SSNs to distinguish among individuals and
ensure that people receive the services or benefits they are entitled to
under the law. SSA is responsible for issuing SSNs as part of its
responsibility for administering three major income support programs for
the elderly, disabled, and their dependents: the Old-Age and Survivors
Insurance; Disability Insurance; and Supplemental Security Income. SSA is
also the repository of information on individuals' wages and earnings.
This information is used in tax administration and is reported by
individuals on their federal income tax returns. Tax return information
may only be disclosed as permitted by the IRC.

Information transmitted to SSA has been protected from disclosure by
statute and regulation since the inception of the Social Security program.
To maintain the confidentiality of the personal information the agency
collects to carry out its mission, in June 1937, SSA adopted its first
regulation, known as "Regulation No. 1," to protect the privacy of
individuals' records and to include a pledge of confidentiality. The
regulation was reinforced by amendments to the Social Security Act in
1939, which became the statutory basis for maintaining the confidentiality

of SSA's records. For decades, the act, along with Regulation No. 1,
formed the basis for SSA's disclosure policy.1 However, the enactment of
subsequent legislation-the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 19662 and
Government in the Sunshine Act in 1976-caused SSA to reexamine its
disclosure and confidentiality policy. This legislation placed the burden
on SSA, as well as other federal agencies, to justify withholding
information requested. Still, SSA's policy is designed to protect the
privacy rights of individuals to the fullest extent possible while
permitting the exchange of records required to fulfill its administrative
and program responsibilities. Over the years, SSA's disclosure policy has
been revised to comply with about 25 statutes, including the Privacy Act.

The Privacy Act of 1974 is the primary law governing the protection of
personal privacy by agencies of the federal government.3 The Privacy Act
regulates the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal
information that federal agencies maintain in a system of records.4 The
act requires that, at the time the information is collected, agencies
inform an individual of the following: (1) authority for the collection
and whether it is mandatory or voluntary, (2) the principal purpose for
the collection of information, (3) what the routine uses for the
information may be, and (4) what the consequences are of not providing the
information.5 The act applies to systems of records maintained by federal
agencies, and with certain exceptions, prohibits agencies from disclosing
such records without the consent of the individual whose records are being
sought. The act authorizes 12 exceptions under which a federal agency may
disclose information in its records without consent, as shown in table 1.
The Privacy Act requires that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
issue guidance and oversee agency implementation of the act. The act does
not generally apply to state and local government records; state laws

1This statute is codified at 42 U.S.C. 1306.

2FOIA provided the public a right of access to federal agency records
unless they are protected from disclosure by nine stated exemptions.

3Generally applicable privacy-related requirements are also found in the
FOIA, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, and the E-Government Act of
2002, among others.

4The Privacy Act defines a system of records as a group of records
containing information about individuals under the control of the agency
from which information is retrieved by the name of the individual or by
some identifying number, symbol, or other identifier assigned to the
individual, such as an SSN.

5Agencies are required to publish notices in the Federal Register
concerning the establishment and revision of systems of records and to
ensure the security and confidentiality of the information in those
systems.

vary widely regarding disclosure of personal information in state
government agencies' control.

 Table 1: Exceptions Permitted under the Privacy Act for Disclosing Information

Activity or agency warranting exception

Conditions under which disclosure is permitted

1. Internal use within federal

              If an employee or officer of the agency maintaining

agency the record needs the information to perform official duties.

2. FOIA If the provisions of the FOIA require the disclosure.

3. Routine usea If the use has been determined to be compatible with the
purpose for which the data were originally collected.b

4. Census Bureau For planning or conducting a census, survey, or related
activity authorized by the Census statute.

5. Statistical research If written assurance is provided that the record
would be used solely as a statistical record and it is transferred in a
form that personal information will not be individually identifiable.

6. National Archives If the record has sufficient historical or other
value to warrant its evaluation for preservation by the Archivist of the
United States or a designee.

7. Civil or criminal law enforcement If used for the purpose of a civil or
criminal law enforcement activity within the United States.

8. Health or safety If compelling circumstances affect the health or
safety of an individual.c

9. Congress If either house of the Congress or committees or subcommittees
with jurisdiction over the subject requests disclosure.

10. Comptroller General If disclosure is for use in the performance of the
duties of the General Accounting Office.

11. Court order If pursuant to the order of a court of competent
jurisdiction.

12. Consumer reporting agency If disclosure is relevant to collection of a
claim of the United States Government (31 USC 3711(e)).

Source: GAO review of the Privacy Act.

aAgencies must keep an accounting of disclosures made under exceptions
3-12.

bThe routine use must have been publicly identified (in the Federal
Register) as such prior to disclosure.

cThe Privacy Act requires that the individual be notified after the
disclosure is made.

The Privacy Act, under the law enforcement exception, outlines the minimum
criteria that must be met by a law enforcement agency to obtain personal
information without an individual's consent. The act requires that

the request specify the information being sought and the law enforcement
activity being carried out. The request must be in writing, and signed by
the agency head.6 In addition, OMB guidance permits agencies to disclose a
personal record covered by the Privacy Act to law enforcement at the
agencies' own initiative, when a violation of law is suspected; provided
that such disclosure has been established in advance as a "routine use"
and misconduct is related to the purposes for which the records are
maintained. The routine use exception of the Privacy Act permits
disclosure of individuals' personal information if the requested use is
compatible with the purpose for which the information was initially
collected.

Under the act, agencies are required to keep an accurate accounting
regarding each disclosure of a record to any person or to another agency
and to retain the accounting for at least 5 years or the life of the
record, whichever is longer. Under OMB guidance, an agency need not keep
track of every disclosure at the time it is made, but the agency must be
able to reconstruct an accurate and complete accounting of disclosures.

  SSA's Disclosure Policy Allows Information Sharing with Law Enforcement under
  Certain Conditions, but is More Restrictive than the Privacy Act

While SSA's policy permits the sharing of nontax information with law
enforcement, it does so only under certain conditions and is more
restrictive than both the law enforcement exception specified under the
Privacy Act and the disclosure policies of most federal agencies. Before
allowing the disclosure of information, SSA's disclosure policy requires
SSA officials to consider several factors such as the nature of the
alleged criminal activity, what information has been requested, and which
agency has made the request. Such considerations are above and beyond what
is included in the law enforcement exception to the Privacy Act. SSA
maintains that it must have a restrictive disclosure policy because much
of the information the agency collects is especially personal. In
addition, SSA officials believe that the agency must uphold the pledge it
made to the public to keep this information confidential when SSA first
began collecting it. Unlike SSA, the policies of most major federal
agencies allow the disclosure of information to law enforcement if the
requests for

6Under implementing OMB guidance, disclosures may also be made to state
and local government law enforcement agencies, as well as to federal
agencies. "Responsibilities for the Maintenance of Records About
Individuals by Federal Agencies," Office of Management and Budget, 40 FR
28948, 28955 (July 9, 1975). OMB found support for its guidance regarding
law enforcement disclosures in congressional floor statements made
regarding the Privacy Act legislation.

information meet the requirements outlined in the Privacy Act. However,
like SSA's disclosure policy, the disclosure policies of the IRS and the
Bureau of the Census, which have disclosure requirements prescribed in
their statutes, are more restrictive than the Privacy Act and the
disclosure policies of most federal agencies.

    SSA Discloses Information to Law Enforcement under Certain Conditions

While SSA has a long history of protecting individuals' privacy, the
agency's disclosure policy allows the disclosure of information to law
enforcement under certain conditions. These conditions require that SSA
officials consider several factors before they release individuals'
personal information. For example, they must examine the nature of the
alleged criminal activity, what information has been requested, and which
agency has made the request. SSA will share information if the criminal
activity involves one of the following:

o  	Fraud or other criminal activity in Social Security programs. SSA will
provide information necessary to investigate or prosecute fraud or other
criminal activity in Social Security programs.

o  	Nonviolent crimes and criminal activity in other government programs
that are similar to Social Security programs. SSA may also disclose
information to investigate and prosecute fraud and other criminal activity
in similar benefit programs, including state welfare/social services
programs such as Medicare or Medicaid, unemployment compensation, food
stamps, and general assistance and federal entitlement programs
administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Personnel
Management, and the Railroad Retirement Board.7

o  	Violent and serious crimes. SSA may disclose information when a
violent crime has been committed and the individual who is the subject of
the information requested has been (1) indicted or convicted of the crime
and (2) the penalty for conviction is incarceration for at least 1 year
and a day regardless of the sentence imposed. SSA might also disclose
information when a person violates parole and the violent crime provisions
of the original conviction have been met. SSA defines violent and serious
crimes as those characterized by the use of physical force or by the
threat of physical force causing actual injury, or coercing the victim

7Railroad Retirement benefits are authorized under the Railroad Retirement
Act and provide income protection to railroad workers and their families
during old age, times of disability, or the death of qualified workers.

to act for fear of suffering serious bodily harm. Such crimes include but
are not limited to: murder; rape; kidnapping; armed robbery; burglary of a
dwelling; arson; drug trafficking or drug possession with intent to
manufacture, import, export, distribute or dispense; hijacking;
car-jacking; and terrorism.

o  	Provisions of other federal statutes that require that SSA disclose
its records such as in connection with civil or criminal violations
involving federal income tax or the location of aliens. SSA will disclose
information when another federal statute requires disclosure, such as the
IRS statute for tax purposes or the Immigration and Naturalization statute
for locating aliens.

o  	The jeopardy or potential jeopardy of the security and safety of SSA's
clients, personnel, or facilities. SSA will disclose information about an
individual if that individual is involved in an activity that places the
health, safety or security of SSA clients, personnel, or facilities in
jeopardy or potential jeopardy. After the disclosure, SSA must send a
notice of the disclosure to the individual whose record was disclosed.

SSA's disclosure policy is contained in 20 C.F.R. Part 401 and is
promulgated through regulations outlined in its "Program Operations Manual
System" (POMS) and Emergency Messages. POMS is the primary tool the field
offices use to assist them in making appropriate disclosure decisions when
they receive requests from law enforcement agencies. POMS provides
detailed guidance and incorporates references to disclosures covered by 25
different statutes, which are located in at least 15 different sections of
the POMS. SSA uses Emergency Messages, usually limited to a one-time only
emergency situation, to provide implementing guidance in emergency
situations. For example, on September 19, 2001, SSA issued an emergency
message to field offices instructing them to direct all law enforcement
requests related to the terrorists' attacks of September 11, 2001, to
SSA's OIG's Office.

SSA's regulations are designed for implementation at all levels of the
agency, including SSA's field offices, regions, and headquarters offices.
SSA can make disclosures through its headquarters, 1,336 field offices, or
10 regional offices. Disclosures can also be made through SSA's OIG, the
law enforcement component of SSA that is responsible for conducting audits
and investigations of agency programs and activities. The OIG is
authorized to handle disclosures through a memorandum of understanding
(MOU) with SSA. The OIG investigations staff conducts and coordinates
activity related to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of SSA

programs and operations. The OIG investigations staff also conducts joint
investigations with other federal, state, and local law enforcement
agencies. The OIG investigations staff is located in 60 locations that
comprise 31 field offices and 10 field divisions.

SSA's OIG is authorized to disclose individuals' personal information to
law enforcement agencies as agreed with SSA under a MOU. In July 2000,
SSA's OIG and the Commissioner of SSA signed an MOU, which outlines the
conditions under which the OIG can disclose to law enforcement agencies
certain limited information from SSA's records in cases involving fraud of
a Social Security program or misuse of an SSN. Under the MOU, the OIG can
disclose whether a given name and SSN match the name and SSN in records at
SSA, referred to as SSN verification. The MOU delegates authority to OIG
employees at all levels. SSA requires that the OIG ensure that law
enforcement requests meet the same requirements outlined in the Privacy
Act as well as those outlined in SSA's POMS and other guidance. In
addition, law enforcement requests must include the name and SSN to be
reviewed and a certification that the individual about whom information is
sought is suspected of misusing an SSN or of committing another crime
against a Social Security program. Under the MOU, the OIG is permitted to
open an investigation and participate in joint investigations with law
enforcement officials, if the OIG determines that further investigation is
warranted.

SSA requires that the OIG submit an annual report to the Commissioner of
SSA, no later than 30 days after the end of the fiscal year. The annual
report must reflect the total number of SSN verification requests received
and responses made, if the number is different, broken down by OIG field
division. SSA also requires that the OIG maintain records from each fiscal
year for 1 year. The Commissioner of SSA can revoke the delegation of
authority to the OIG described in the MOU at any time by providing a
30-day notice.

While any SSA office can make disclosures, the Privacy Officer within
SSA's Office of Disclosure Policy, located in the Office of General
Counsel, has overall responsibility for overseeing the agency's
implementation of the disclosure policy. Except for requests involving
national security issues, which are referred to the Privacy Officer at SSA
headquarters and ultimately to the Commissioner of SSA, field locations
handle requests for disclosing information because the offices are at the
local level where information is frequently needed. Privacy Coordinators
are located in the regional offices and are available to assist the field
offices on questions about disclosures. The Privacy Coordinators report to
the Privacy Officer.

When SSA receives a request from law enforcement agencies, SSA officials
must first determine whether the request is valid, that is, in writing on
the agency's letterhead, specifies the records being requested, and is
signed by an official of the requesting office. SSA field office officials
are instructed to rely on their knowledge of local law enforcement
agencies to determine whether a request is from the proper person. For
valid requests, SSA officials must also determine whether the agency
requesting the information has jurisdiction in the particular case. Other
specific criteria considered in determining whether SSA will disclose
individuals' personal information to law enforcement agencies are outlined
in figure 1. Tax information is disclosed consistent with IRC 6103. SSA
officials told us that in all cases, the agency's practice is to provide
only the minimum amount of information necessary to assist law
enforcement.

 Figure 1: SSA's Disclosure Policy for Law Enforcement SSA's Disclosure Policy
                        for Law Enforcement (continued)

SSA's Disclosure Policy for Law Enforcement (continued)

Sources: Social Security Administration (data) and copyright (c) Corel
Corp. All rights reserved (icons).

aState officials do not have jurisdiction in welfare fraud cases in Native
American Territories; therefore, SSA does not disclose information to
state officials.

bThe Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of
Homeland Security (ICE DHS) was created with the merger of the former
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Customs Service.

cSSA has specific procedures for processing Immigration requests for
personal information through its field offices and the Immigration
District located in Baltimore, Maryland.

dState and local agencies may obtain this information from SSA under
automated data exchange.

eAll requests concerning these crimes are processed at SSA headquarters
through the Privacy Officer, who refers the cases to the Commissioner for
a decision under the Commissioner's ad hoc authority.

fSSA advises staff to consider whether the possible violations are of
significant value to the other agency and whether excessive use of SSA's
resources would be required to help the other agency in its investigation.

For law enforcement requests that do not fit neatly in the categories
described or do not meet the specific criteria outlined in SSA's policy,
SSA's Commissioner decides whether or not the agency will share the
requested information using the Commissioner's ad hoc authority. The
Commissioner's ad hoc authority is generally reserved for exceptional
cases approved on a case-by-case basis. For example, following the
September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Commissioner's ad hoc
authority was invoked to disclose to the FBI and other law enforcement
agencies information in SSA's files concerning suspects or other persons
who may have had information on the attacks and to help identify and
locate victims and members of their families.8 Certain requirements must
be met in order to invoke the Commissioner's ad hoc authority. The request
must be deemed appropriate and necessary, SSA's regulations cannot specify
what is to be done in the circumstance in question, and no provision of
law can specifically prohibit the disclosure. SSA policy prohibits the
disclosure of tax return information under the Commissioner's ad hoc
authority. SSA officials told us that the Commissioner invokes this
authority infrequently and had rendered decisions to disclose information
to law enforcement agencies 35 times between April 1981 and October 2002.

    SSA's Disclosure Policy for Law Enforcement Is More Restrictive than the
    Privacy Act

Unlike SSA's disclosure policy, the Privacy Act requires that fewer
criteria be met before a disclosure is made. However, SSA officials state
that the agency must protect tax information and maintain the pledge of
confidentiality that the agency made long before the Privacy Act was
enacted. Therefore, SSA's policy imposes additional requirements as a
condition for disclosure. Over the years, SSA has modified its disclosure
policy to incorporate legislative requirements, but where it had
discretion, SSA has continued to focus its policy on protecting
individuals' privacy and upholding the pledge of confidentiality.

8As noted in figure 1, SSA's policy usually prohibits the disclosure of
individuals' personal information to law enforcement agencies when the
person whose information is requested is only suspected of a crime.
However, in this case, the Commissioner made the decision that it was
appropriate to give information on individuals suspected of the criminal
activity and the families of the victims.

The law enforcement exception of the Privacy Act permits disclosure of
individuals' personal information when a law enforcement agency (1)
requests the information for an authorized law enforcement activity, (2)
makes the request through the agency head, (3) submits the request in
writing, and (4) specifies the information requested and the law
enforcement activity involved. Under the Privacy Act, a law enforcement
agency investigating a person suspected of embezzlement or shoplifting
could submit a request to most federal agencies, including SSA, for
information seeking or verifying the person's name, SSN, date of birth,
last known address, and other data. Most federal agencies would probably
provide that information from their records covered by the Privacy Act.
However, under SSA's policy, no information would be given to the law
enforcement agency because SSA has determined that these are not crimes
that warrant any disclosure of individuals' personal information.
Additionally, the Privacy Act includes a routine use exception, which
allows personal information to be disclosed on the initiative of the
custodian agency. To qualify for a routine use, the proposed use of the
information must be compatible with the purpose for which the information
was obtained. Agencies must publish their routine uses in the Federal
Register. SSA relies on the routine use exception to disclose information
to law enforcement when fraud or other violations are suspected in SSA's
programs and other similar federal income or health maintenance programs.

The law enforcement exception of the Privacy Act permits all federal
agencies to disclose personal information to law enforcement agencies upon
written request from the law enforcement agency. Twenty of the

9SSA's disclosure policy for nontax information is the subject of this
report since disclosure of tax information is only permitted by the IRC.

10Components of some agencies have a disclosure policy that differs from
the disclosure policy of the agency of which they are a part. For example,
the Department of Commerce uses the Privacy Act to guide its disclosures,
while Census, which is a component of Commerce, has its own statute.
Similarly, IRS, which is a component of Treasury, has its own statute.

SSA's Policy Is More SSA's disclosure policy9 is more restrictive than the
disclosure policies of Restrictive than the most major federal agencies,
with IRS and the Census Bureau, being Policies of Most Federal exceptions.
However, unlike SSA's disclosure policy, the policies of the

IRS and Census are specifically provided in statute. Most major
federalAgencies, with the agencies' policies allow for disclosures to law
enforcement agencies underException of IRS and the law enforcement or the
routine use exceptions of the Privacy Act.10

    Census

24 major federal agencies have issued regulations that reference that
disclosure authority.11 In addition, OMB guidance permits agencies to
disclose personal information covered by the Privacy Act to law
enforcement agencies under the routine use exception of the Privacy Act.
The routine use exception permits federal agencies, at their own
initiative, to disclose personal information without consent if the use is
compatible with the purpose for which the information was collected. OMB
guidance permits such a disclosure to a law enforcement agency when a
violation of law is suspected, provided that such disclosure has been
established in advance as a "routine use" and the misconduct is related to
the purposes for which the information is collected and maintained.12
Fourteen of the 24 major federal agencies have established law enforcement
routine use exceptions that are generally applicable to their systems of
records. Some agencies alternatively only apply the law enforcement
routine use exception to specific systems of records.13 Accordingly, under
the Privacy Act, disclosure of personal information to law enforcement
agencies may be permitted, depending on the agency and the circumstances,
either by the law enforcement exception or the routine use exception. SSA,
however, does not permit such disclosures from SSA program records under
either exception. As already discussed, SSA requires considerations above
and beyond the requirements in the Privacy Act. (See app. II for a list of
federal agencies' rules referencing the Privacy Act law enforcement
disclosure authority and those authorizing a general law enforcement
routine use exception.)

Although SSA's disclosure policy for law enforcement is restrictive
relative to most other federal agencies, IRS and Census also have
restrictive disclosure requirements, which are outlined in these agencies'
statutes. IRS's disclosures of tax returns and return information are
governed by

11We identify the major federal agencies as the 24 agencies covered by the
Chief Financial Officers' Act of 1990 and 1994 legislation designating SSA
as an independent agency requiring a Chief Financial Officer.

1240 Fed. Reg. 28948, 28953, and 28955, July 9, 1975.

13The 2001 Compilation of Privacy Act Issuances provides examples of
specific systems of records to which the law enforcement routine used is
applied: for example, Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing
Service, Employment History Records for Licensed Nonfederal Employees
(USDA/AMS-1); General Services Administration, Employee-related files
(GSA/Agency-1); Small Business Administration, Audit Reports (SBA 015);
and Department of the Treasury, Treasury Integrated Management Information
Systems (Treasury/DO .002). The Privacy Act Issuances are available
on-line from the Government Printing Office (www.gpo.gov).

Internal Revenue Code Section 6103, which prohibits disclosures unless
specifically authorized in statute. This statutory restriction serves to
protect the confidentiality of personal and financial information in IRS's
possession and ensure compliance with tax laws. A court order is generally
required to open tax returns or other tax information to federal law
enforcement officials investigating a federal nontax crime or preparing
for a grand jury or other judicial proceeding, without the knowledge or
consent of the taxpayer involved. The Attorney General, the Deputy
Attorney General, and other Justice Department officials specifically
named in the statute, are permitted to seek a court order. To obtain a
court order, the requester has to demonstrate that:

o  	reasonable cause exists to believe that a specific criminal act has
been committed and tax return information is or may be relevant to a
matter relating to the commission of the criminal act;

o  	the information being sought will be used exclusively in a federal
criminal investigation concerning the criminal act; and cannot be
reasonably obtained, under the circumstances, from another source.

Information federal law enforcement obtains from IRS generally cannot be
shared with state and local law enforcement. However, the Victims of
Terrorism Tax Relief Act of 2001 permits federal law enforcement agencies
involved in terrorist investigations/intelligence gathering to redisclose
this information to officers and employees of state and local law
enforcement who are directly engaged in investigating or analyzing
intelligence concerning the terrorist incidents, threats, or activities.

The disclosure authority for Census is spelled out in statute under Title
13 of the United States Code. The Census statute prohibits the disclosure
of any individual's Census data other than for use by the Census, making
information that the Bureau of the Census collects and maintains immune
from the legal process. Unlike IRS, a court order will not permit the
Census Bureau to disclose information to law enforcement agencies or any
other entities that may request an individual's personal information.
Regulations provide that a person's individual census information may not
be disclosed to the public for 72 years from the decennial census for
which the information was collected and the fine for wrongful disclosure
of confidential census information is imprisonment of up to 5 years or a
fine

up to $250,000, or both.14 The statute further restricts the use of
individuals' Census data to the Secretary of Commerce, or bureau and
agency employees. Additionally, Census data for individuals may only be
(1) used for statistical purposes for which it was supplied; (2) published
in a manner so that an individual's information cannot be identified; and
(3) examined by persons who have been sworn as officers or employees of
the Department of Commerce, or the Bureau of the Census. The statute even
protects from compulsory disclosure, copies of Census information that an
individual may have retained for their own personal use. Accordingly, "no
department, bureau, agency, officer, or employee of the government, except
the Secretary of Commerce in carrying out the statutory duties of the
agency, shall require copies of information an individual may have
retained." An individual's personal retained copies of census forms are
immune from the legal process and cannot be admitted as evidence in any
action, suit, or other judicial or administrative proceeding without the
individual's consent.

    SSA Views Restrictions as Integral to Carrying Out Its Mission

SSA maintains that it must have a restrictive disclosure policy to protect
individuals' personal information, even from law enforcement requests,
because much of the information the agency collects is especially personal
and was initially obtained under the pledge of confidentiality. SSA
officials told us that they try to limit disclosure because the agency has
no control over the extent to which information will be safeguarded once
disclosed. In addition, Social Security has universal coverage and an
individual cannot refuse to be assigned an SSN. The Social Security Act
requires that SSA compile wage and employment data for each individual.
According to an SSA official, individuals cannot receive Social Security
benefits without having an SSN. In SSA's disclosure policy, the agency
recognizes that its rules for disclosure are more restrictive than the
Privacy Act and cites several reasons why. According to SSA, it seldom has
records that are useful to law enforcement agencies and information from
tax returns- such as addresses or employment information-cannot be
disclosed. Also, SSA contends that its resources should not be diverted
for nonprogram purposes. Finally, SSA says that it has a long-standing
pledge to the public to maintain the confidentiality of its records.

14The decennial census occurs every 10 years, in the years ending in "0,"
to count the population and housing units for the entire United States.

  SSA Has Provided Information to Law Enforcement Officials, but Confusion about
  the Disclosure Policy May Cause Inconsistent Application

Information SSA Provided to Law Enforcement Often Limited to Name and SSN
Verification

SSA's Disclosure Policy Confuses Staff and May Not Be Consistently Applied
across SSA Field Offices

Although SSA's policy supports sharing limited information with law
enforcement under certain conditions, we found evidence that some SSA
field office staff are confused about the policy that could result in
staff applying it inconsistently. Information provided to law enforcement
is generally limited to the verification of a name and SSN, though more
information may be provided under certain circumstances. Information
obtained through our selected site visits and survey results indicated
that SSA field offices might have denied law enforcement requests when
they could have provided information and instances in which offices might
have provided more information than was permitted under SSA's policy.
Because SSA is not required to and therefore, does not maintain aggregated
data showing what requests were made, whether they were approved, and what
information was given to fulfill them, we could not determine the extent
to which these inconsistencies occurred.

Information provided to law enforcement is routinely limited to the
verification of a name and SSN, though more information may be provided
under certain circumstances. When law enforcement provides SSA with the
name and SSN of an indicted or convicted criminal, SSA can conduct a
search on the SSN to determine if it is valid and if it matches the name
provided by law enforcement. If the name and the SSN do not match, SSA
will not usually identify to whom the SSN actually belongs, though they
will tell law enforcement that there was no match. Except to identify and
locate illegal aliens, SSA generally will not provide any information if
law enforcement only provides an SSN and wants to know to whom it is
assigned. Under certain circumstances, such as when SSA's OIG conducts a
joint investigation with other law enforcement agencies involving fraud
against one of SSA's programs, the OIG is allowed to provide any
information available in SSA's data system, short of IRS data.

SSA tries to ensure that its disclosure policy is consistently implemented
in all field offices. SSA takes various steps to ensure the consistent
applications of its disclosure policy. For example, SSA has taken steps to
educate its staff about its disclosure policy. SSA managers indicated that
SSA staff is given disclosure policy training when they start employment
and such training is refreshed as needed. Additionally, SSA posts the
policy on its internal Web site and on Compact Disc-Read-Only Memory
(CD-ROM) for staff reference. Furthermore, a regional "privacy
coordinator" is available to answer staff questions about proper
disclosure procedures. One SSA regional office provided a chart to all SSA
field

offices within its "program circle"15 that briefly summarizes SSA's policy
on access and disclosure without consent. Although this chart had not been
updated since July 1996, it was viewed by the manager we talked with as a
handy guide for what could be disclosed and also provided references to
the location of a more thorough explanation of SSA's policy in their POMS.
In addition, to ensure that disclosure procedures are followed, field
office managers told us that they usually handle information requests from
law enforcement officials rather than leaving this duty to staff.

However, we noted in our survey and during selected site visits, a limited
number of instances where SSA's disclosure policy appears to have been
inconsistently applied. In some instances, law enforcement might have
received more information than permitted under SSA's policy. For example,
one SSA OIG office we visited provided a law enforcement agency with the
name, SSN, date of birth, place of birth, and parents' name when it seemed
that only the name and SSN verification results should have been provided.
In another case, an SSA official reported that a state law enforcement
officer stopped an individual and telephoned SSA requesting information to
verify the SSN, date of birth, place of birth, and sex and was provided
the results over the telephone. Although SSA's policy permits the
verification of the name and SSN, such requests are required to be in
writing. In other instances, requests that should have been approved might
have been turned down. For example, one SSA field office manager told us
that nothing could be disclosed to law enforcement if the request for
information pertained to an individual suspected of misusing an SSN
because the individual had not been indicted or convicted of this crime.
However, SSA's policy would appear to permit disclosure in this situation.
Another SSA field office manager told us that office would not disclose
any information without consent from the individual for whom the
information is being requested.

Several possible reasons exist for the inconsistent application of SSA's
disclosure policy. Although our survey showed that most SSA field offices
receive requests for information from law enforcement, SSA field officials
we spoke with said that they do not receive requests frequently. For
example, several officials told us that they received fewer than 10
requests in 2002. Because requests are infrequent, staff must often
consult the policy to help them to respond properly. However, many staff
members

15The "program circle" consisted of 12 SSA field offices within the area
of this particular regional office.

SSA Field Offices Do Not Maintain Aggregated Data, but OIG Does

consider the policy confusing. For example, one field office manager said
that, "We have doubts as to what information should be provided to U.S.
Border Patrol." Similarly, a manager in another field office said,
"SSA[`s] disclosure policy should be written in "Plain English" to make it
easy to understand by all readers." A different field office manager
commented, "[SSA's] Disclosure policy is still frequently confusing for
much of our staff." This lack of clarity leads to confusion about what
should be disclosed. For example, one manager said, "[SSA's policy] is
quite confusing. It's hard to know what you can disclose." Another manager
commented, "I think the policy should be clearer than it is. There's too
much...'if this, then that, but not this and so on.'"

In addition, SSA's responsibilities to both assist law enforcement and
protect individuals' privacy may be exacerbating the confusion and
inconsistent application of the agency's policy. For example, officials at
SSA headquarters said that they want to help law enforcement as much as
possible, but they believed they must also protect the privacy of the
information in their systems of records in order to perform SSA's primary
mission. Some managers in SSA field offices believed that the agency
should provide information to law enforcement. However, several field
office managers expressed their concerns and reluctance about sharing
information with law enforcement agencies. Employees who provide
information to an individual inappropriately could be subject to a
penalty, including suspension or termination from SSA. Therefore, rather
than risk disclosing information inappropriately, some officials might err
on the side of caution and not disclose information even when it is
permitted under the agency's disclosure policy.

Consistent application of SSA's disclosure policy cannot be assessed
because, according to OMB guidelines, SSA is not required to maintain
aggregated data showing what requests were made, whether they were
approved, and what information was given to fulfill them.16 According to
SSA, disclosures of individuals' personal information are kept in
individuals' files. While SSA policy does not stipulate that field offices
must keep track of requests made by a law enforcement agency, our survey
revealed some information about these requests. For example, we estimate
that 82 percent of SSA field offices indicated that they had

16OMB guidance requires that agencies be able to reconstruct an accurate
and complete accounting of disclosures. However, we did not request that
SSA reconstruct the accounting of disclosures to law enforcement agencies
because it was beyond the scope of this assignment, and according to SSA,
such a request would involve a huge undertaking.

received requests for personal information from law enforcement agencies.
However, 71 percent of SSA's field offices do not maintain a record of
requests made by law enforcement agencies.

While the majority of SSA field offices do not maintain records of law
enforcement requests, results from our survey showed that 90 percent of
the SSA OIG offices maintain these data for disclosures the OIG made. The
SSA OIG is required to report to the SSA Commissioner aggregated data
annually on disclosures made. According to the OIG, it also keeps a hard
copy of requests made by law enforcement agencies for at least 1 year. On
the basis of these aggregated data, between fiscal years 2000 and 2002,
SSA OIG regional divisions fulfilled almost 30,000 requests from law
enforcement agencies for name and SSN verification. Table 2 shows the
number of verifications fulfilled by SSA OIG regional divisions and
headquarters. However, no numbers are kept on denied law enforcement
requests. According to SSA OIG officials, in most cases, law enforcement
officers contact OIG offices by telephone before submitting a request so
no written record exists if the OIG does not grant the request for
information.

Table 2: Number of Information Requests Granted to Law Enforcement by OIG
Field Divisions and Headquarters in Fiscal Years 2000 through 2002

           Field divisions and  Fiscal year Fiscal year  Fiscal year  
                  headquarters         2000         2001         2002   Total 
                       Atlanta      D - NCa          198        1,660   1,858 
                        Boston       D - NC          391        1,072   1,463 
                      New York           52          307        2,202   2,561 
                  Philadelphia       D - NC          405        1,748   2,153 
                       Chicago       D - NC        2,872        7,289  10,161 
                        Dallas          320          439        1,767   2,526 
                     St. Louis          237          894        1,467   2,598 
                        Denver          176          173        1,184   1,533 
                   Los Angeles          400          553        2,353   3,306 
                       Seattle       D - NC          520          282 
                  Headquarters            -            -          838 
                        Totals        1,185        6,752    21,862     29,799 

  While Some Law Enforcement Officers Were Unfamiliar with the Policy, Most Were
  Generally Satisfied with the Information Shared

Many State and Local Law Enforcement Officers Were Unfamiliar with SSA's
Disclosure Policy and Procedures

Source: SSA OIG data.

aD - NC - Records destroyed; no counts available. Prior to fiscal year
2000, law enforcement verifications were conducted by Allegation
Management Division (OIG Hotline), and records no longer exist for those
verifications. In April 2002, the Office of Investigations began using the
code "LEVER" when conducting law enforcement verifications in the SSA
system. The use of "LEVER" will provide OIG with an automated retrieval of
the count, and manual counts will no longer be used effective fiscal year
2003.

While some law enforcement officials we spoke with were unfamiliar with
SSA's disclosure policies, most were generally satisfied with the
information provided by SSA, though most would like more. Some law
enforcement agencies at the state and local level were unfamiliar with the
process for obtaining information and expressed frustration with their
attempts to obtain information from SSA. Law enforcement officials
indicated that the SSN and name verification SSA provided was often
helpful to their investigations. However, most wanted SSA to provide
additional information such as address, date of birth, and employer or
family information. SSA officials have several concerns about expanding
SSA's disclosure policy.

Findings from site visits indicated that some law enforcement officers at
the state and local level, who generally request information from SSA
field offices, are unfamiliar with the process for obtaining information
from SSA offices. Because SSA does not have written procedures on its
disclosure policy available to law enforcement, some officers find out how

Most Law Enforcement Officials Found Shared Information Useful but Many
Believed More Information Was Needed

to obtain information virtually by trial and error. For example, one
officer told us that after having his initial request for information,
which was not in writing turned down because he had not followed proper
procedures, he obtained a search warrant to obtain the information from
SSA. The officer said that no one at SSA explained to him the procedures
for obtaining information until he got the search warrant. It is unclear
when or if SSA officials let law enforcement officers know what procedures
need to be followed to get information. Federal law enforcement agencies,
on the other hand, more often understood the Privacy Act's procedures.
Further, most federal law enforcement agencies we spoke with submitted
their requests to SSA's OIG-itself, a federal law enforcement agency. Our
survey results indicated that on average in 2002, 46 percent of the
requests made to OIG offices came from federal law enforcement agencies
while 27 percent of the requests made to SSA field offices on average came
from federal law enforcement agencies.

While details on SSA's disclosure policy are available in their POMS and
other SSA documents that summarize this information, it is not readily
available to law enforcement. A summary of the policy can be found on
SSA's Web site under the caption "Code of Federal Regulations for Social
Security." However, it is not easy to find and provides little detail on
what SSA will provide to law enforcement. Further, the Web site does not
provide law enforcement with instructions on what they need to do to get
the information.

Officials from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies we spoke
with were generally satisfied with the information provided by SSA
although most would like more information on individuals. Law enforcement
officials indicated that, although in most cases SSA only verified a name
and SSN, the information received was useful to their investigations and,
in some cases, was enough to help convict an individual of a crime. The
information received from SSA was considered by law enforcement as the
most accurate and up-to-date information available to help in their
investigations.

Law enforcement was also satisfied with the time in which SSA provided the
information. In many cases, law enforcement officers we spoke with
indicated that SSA provided the information very quickly. In addition, one
SSA OIG official told us that when procedures are followed correctly, the
OIG can reply back in 24 hours or less, depending on the information
requested. SSA confirmed the timeliness of its responses to law
enforcement requests. We estimate that over 90 percent of both SSA field
office and OIG respondents reported that it took 24 hours or less to
fulfill a

request. Our survey results showed that 40 percent of SSA field offices
and 21 percent of SSA OIG offices reported that it took less than an hour
to fulfill a request from a law enforcement agency.

Although most of the law enforcement officials we spoke with were
satisfied with information provided by SSA, several believed the
information provided was insufficient. Several of these law enforcement
officials believed that the name and SSN verification was not enough to
help with their investigations. These individuals generally wanted
additional information such as the suspect's wage information, address,
employer, and date of birth. In documents provided to us, SSA's OIG listed
the following situations in which the OIG could not provide information to
law enforcement.

When the official

o  provides the SSN and wants to know to whom it is assigned;

o  	wants information to locate witnesses or suspects in high profile
cases or missing persons;

o  wants information on individuals with Alzheimer's disease who are lost,

o  wants information on next of kin;

o  	wants information to locate a fugitive who may be receiving benefits
under SSA's Old-Age and Survivors Insurance program and its Disability
Insurance program;

o  wants information to make identifications in child pornography cases;

o  	wants information to determine if there has been any activity on a
Social Security account in a custodial interference case;17 and

o  	wants information on SSNs related to non-SSA-related fraud cases or
counterfeit cases.

17A custodial interference case usually involves the actions of one spouse
who kidnaps a child from the spouse who has custody of the child. The
Social Security account can provide information that could help to locate
the spouse who kidnapped the child.

Some law enforcement officials were unhappy with SSA's refusal to provide
such information, especially because they believed that SSA could easily
provide it in a short period of time. For example, one federal officer who
investigates nonviolent felony crimes said that SSA seems more concerned
about someone committing fraud against one of its programs than about
identity theft involving the use of someone's SSN. He also said that SSA
would not provide him with any information on the person whose identity
was being stolen. Another officer said that because he could not get
necessary information from SSA, he had resorted to other means of
gathering the information needed. The officer said that depending on
resources available, it could take up to 3 weeks to get someone's SSN
through other sources. Furthermore, the officer said that while he could
make the case without the SSA information, the information SSA can provide
would be invaluable to helping fully prosecute a case.

Many SSA officials in the field and OIG offices agreed that SSA's
disclosure policy is too restrictive. Many believed that, for legitimate
investigations, the policy should allow for disclosures to law enforcement
officials of whatever information they need. One SSA OIG official said
that, as a law enforcement officer, he believed that he should be able to
provide information to another law enforcement officer especially when he
knew that doing so would help with a case and also because law enforcement
officers would be more willing to share information with the OIG. While
the SSA Commissioner can invoke ad hoc authority for certain specific
cases to disclose information, as was done in response to the disclosure
requests related to the September 11 terrorist attacks, SSA officials said
that the use of this authority must be limited. SSA headquarters officials
believe that expanding its disclosure policy would hamper its ability to
ensure that individuals' personal information is protected and that
resources are not diverted from administering Social Security benefit
programs.

Conclusions 	Protecting individuals' privacy and providing information to
law enforcement that could be helpful in solving crimes or ensuring
national security are two important yet sometimes seemingly conflicting
policy objectives. SSA places a high priority on privacy, and its policy
for disclosure to law enforcement agencies goes beyond the requirements of
the Privacy Act. SSA's disclosure policy attempts to preserve its pledge
to maintain individuals' privacy while cooperating with law enforcement
and complying with applicable statutes. The end result is a complex policy
that is more restrictive than the Privacy Act requirements and those of
most federal agencies and more like the policies of IRS and Census,
agencies

  Recommendations

o

o

  Agency Comments and Our Evaluation

that maintain personal information whose requirements are embodied in
statute.

In addition, some SSA field office staff and local law enforcement
officers find SSA's policy confusing and sometimes frustrating. As a
possible consequence of SSA staff and local law enforcement's confusion
about SSA's policy, law enforcement may be denied requested information
even though SSA's policy permits its disclosure or law enforcement may
receive information that SSA's policy does not permit. Although we could
not assess the overall level of consistency in the application of SSA's
policy, we believe eliminating or reducing confusion about the agency's
policy would help ensure consistent application, and that this can be
achieved with relatively modest actions on SSA's part.

To help ensure consistent application of SSA's disclosure policy for law
enforcement in all of its offices and to better assist law enforcement
agencies making disclosure requests, we recommend that the Commissioner of
SSA do the following:

Take steps to eliminate confusion about the agency's disclosure policy.
These steps could include clarifying SSA's policy; providing additional or
refresher training to staff; or delegating decision-making authority for
law enforcement requests to specified locations such as the OIG, regional
privacy coordinators, or other units that SSA determines would have
expertise in this area.

Provide law enforcement with information on SSA's disclosure policy and
procedures. For example, this information could be provided on its Web
site, in informational pamphlets, or some other written format.

We obtained written comments on a draft of this report from the
Commissioner of SSA. SSA's comments are reproduced in appendix III. SSA
also provided technical comments, which we incorporated in the report as
appropriate. We also provided a draft of this report to the Departments of
Commerce, Justice, and Treasury for review and comment. These three
agencies reported that they had no comments.

SSA stated that our draft report accurately reflected the importance of
SSA's disclosure policy to the agency's mission but it presents an
incomplete description of both the statutory basis for and rationale
behind the policy. Further, SSA stated that the draft report does not take
into

account the statutory basis for the nondisclosure of tax information or
the statutory support for the agency's long-standing confidentiality
pledge; therefore, SSA believes that our findings and recommendations are
"overbroad." We are aware of SSA's obligation under the IRC and took this
into consideration during our review of SSA's disclosure policy; however,
we have revised the report, where appropriate, to clarify that our
observations about SSA's disclosure policy relative to the Privacy Act do
not extend to SSA's disclosure of tax information. Disclosure of tax
information is controlled by section 6103 of the IRC. We also provided
additional reference to the statutory basis and rationale behind SSA's
disclosure policy.

SSA also commented that 42 U.S.C. 1306 provided an independent basis for
nondisclosures, apart from the Privacy Act. The report recognizes that 42
U.S.C. 1306 provides the basis for SSA's disclosure policy and we have
added a citation for this authority. Section 1306 provides SSA authority
to regulate the dissemination of information in its custody as otherwise
permitted by federal law. Other federal law includes the Privacy Act. Our
report merely points out that SSA has used this authority to regulate in a
more restrictive fashion than the Privacy Act requires.

SSA stated that it believed that our characterizing the agency's policy as
more restrictive than most federal agencies does SSA a disservice because
many federal agencies have little interaction with the public at large.
SSA states that the only two agencies of SSA's size and scope with respect
to gathering information from the public to accomplish their missions are
IRS and Census, which have more restrictive disclosure policies and
statutes that prohibit disclosures. We believe that our comparison and
characterization of SSA's disclosure policy is fair. We compared SSA's
disclosure policy to those of the other 23 agencies covered by the Chief
Financial Officers' Act. We decided also to compare SSA's policy to those
of IRS and Census because they are similar in size and scope of data
maintained on individuals. All of the agencies we compared are subject to
the Privacy Act. As we reported, SSA's disclosure policy, as well as those
of IRS and the Census Bureau is more restrictive than most federal
agencies.

SSA agreed in part with our recommendation that the Commissioner take
steps to eliminate confusion that may cause inconsistent application of
the policy. SSA acknowledged that the policy is complex and could lead to
occasional inconsistent application. However, SSA stated that it provides
extensive instructions in its POMS for employees and the instructions
refer staff to experts in regional and central offices for assistance when

needed. SSA also stated that its regional offices have provided employees
access to Intranet sites that clarify disclosure policy, but the agency
will consider providing additional refresher training as appropriate. In
addition, SSA stated it is currently reviewing improvements to the POMS
sections that address law enforcement disclosures that the agency believes
will address our concerns. SSA expressed concern about the option to
consider delegating "decision-making authority for law enforcement
requests to specified locations such as the OIG..." SSA stated that the
Inspectors General Act of 1978 prohibits agencies from transferring
programmatic functions to the Inspector General.

We acknowledge in our report that SSA provides guidance on its disclosure
policy in its POMS. While we found that employees were aware of this
guidance, SSA staff told us that they found SSA's policy confusing. We
believe additional training as well as improvements to the POMS that
clarify or simplify SSA's policy should help ensure consistent
application.

With respect to SSA's concern about our recommendation to consider
delegating decision-making authority for law enforcement requests to
specified locations such as the OIG, regional privacy officers, or other
units that SSA determines would have expertise in this area, we did not
intend to imply that programmatic functions be transferred to the OIG. Our
recommendation was aimed at directing disclosure requests to units that
currently perform this function and that appear to have expertise in SSA's
disclosure policy. We simply intended to provide options for SSA to better
utilize the resources they already have in place to determine whether law
enforcement requests are permitted under SSA's disclosure policy. The OIG,
who currently responds to law enforcement requests as authorized under an
MOU with SSA, was only one of the units we suggested as an option. We
continue to believe that delegating authority to handle disclosure
requests to specified units with expertise in SSA's disclosure policy
would be a plausible option for helping to ensure consistent application
of SSA's policy. This option could reduce or eliminate the need for SSA
field office officials who receive sporadic requests from law enforcement
to relearn SSA's disclosure policy.

SSA agreed with our recommendation that the Commissioner of SSA should
provide law enforcement with information on SSA's disclosure policy and
procedures and SSA believes the agency has done so. However, SSA stated it
would review its Web site and other public informational materials to see
if additional material or formatting changes would be helpful.

We acknowledged in our report that SSA's policy can be found on the
Internet, but noted that it is not easily found and does not clearly
explain how law enforcement could obtain information. Although SSA
officials told us that they provided limited discussion of the agency's
disclosure policy and procedures at law enforcement conferences, these
officials did not indicate the number of conferences attended or whether
these conferences involved federal, state, or local law enforcement. Some
of the local law enforcement officials we spoke with were unfamiliar with
how to obtain information from SSA. Therefore, we continue to believe that
information that clearly defines SSA's disclosure policy and procedures
would be helpful to law enforcement. Further, we believe that our findings
and recommendations are central to many concerns expressed by both SSA and
law enforcement officials and we view the steps that SSA indicated that it
plans to consider, or already has in process to ensure consistent
application of its disclosure policy and law enforcement's understanding
of how to obtain information from SSA as appropriate steps toward
correcting the concerns expressed.

We are sending copies of this report to the Commissioner of Social
Security; the Secretaries of Commerce, Treasury, and Homeland Security;
the U.S. Attorney General; appropriate congressional committees; and
other interested parties. We will also make copies of this report
available
to others on request. In addition, the report will be available at no
charge
on GAO's Web site at http://www.gao.gov.

If you or your staffs have questions about this report, please call me on
(202) 512-7215. Other GAO contacts and staff acknowledgments are listed
in appendix IV.

Barbara D. Bovbjerg
Director, Education, Workforce,

and Income Security Issues

                       Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

To attain our objectives for this assignment, we reviewed and compared the
Social Security Administration's (SSA) disclosure policy for law
enforcement and the Privacy Act. We also compared SSA's disclosure policy
with that of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Bureau of the
Census because SSA officials believe that these agencies are comparable
with SSA. Additionally, we compared SSA's disclosure policy with the
general law enforcement disclosure policies for the other 23 Chief
Financial Officers' (CFO) Act agencies.

To help determine how SSA's disclosure policy affects information sharing
with law enforcement, we conducted site visits and detailed interviews at
SSA field offices and SSA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), as well
as nearby field offices for federal, state, and local law enforcement
agencies in Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; and Dallas, Texas.
We also administered an electronic survey to all SSA OIG field offices1
and a stratified random sample of SSA field offices.

We interviewed SSA officials in both headquarters and field offices and
law enforcement officials at the federal, state, and local levels of
government about their experiences with sharing individuals' personal
information. At the headquarters level, we interviewed SSA officials
responsible for disclosure policy in the Office of General Counsel and the
SSA OIG, Baltimore, Maryland. We interviewed law enforcement officials
from the Departments of Justice and Treasury, including the Federal Bureau
of Investigation (FBI); Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement,
formerly Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Customs;
Executive Office for United States' Attorneys; Drug Enforcement Agency;
United States Marshals Service; Secret Service; Internal Revenue Service
(IRS); and Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire Arms, headquartered in Washington,
D.C. During the course of our review, several of these law enforcement
agencies merged into the Department of Homeland Security, or were
otherwise reorganized.2 We also interviewed OIG officials for
investigation at the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban

1SSA OIG officials identified 31 field offices of its 60 locations as the
universe of field offices to survey. According to the officials, the
remaining locations are satellite offices that report to the 31 offices
identified.

2Effective January 2003, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
reorganized with the law enforcement functions transferred to the
Department of Justice, but the tax and trade functions remained in the
Department of the Treasury. Effective March 2003, the Secret Service,
Customs, and Immigration and Naturalization Service were merged into the
newly created Department of Homeland Security.

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

Development in Washington, D.C. Our site visits included interviews with
the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at Dallas, Texas, and
law enforcement officials of the Arlington Police Department, Arlington,
Virginia.

We surveyed SSA offices in order to: (1) estimate the type and volume of
law enforcement requests for personal information received by SSA; (2)
determine the distribution of these requests across federal, state, and
local law enforcement agencies; and (3) gain some understanding of the
bases for the granting and denial of these requests. Our working
definition of a personal information request is an instance for which a
law enforcement agency requested the personal information of one or more
individuals between fiscal years 1999 and 2002. For example, if a law
enforcement agency requested addresses for two people in a single
instance, this would count as one personal information request. We were
specifically interested in law enforcement agencies' requests for personal
information, such as social security numbers, names, addresses, birth
dates, and income.

We designed an Internet-based survey and organized it into multiple
sections that included the following areas: receipt of law enforcement
requests, response time for fulfilling law enforcement requests, and
methods for handling law enforcement requests. We selected a stratified
random sample of 335 SSA field offices to participate in the survey. This
number was based on an expected response rate as well as a precision
level. The sample was stratified by 10 regional locations and taken from a
listing of 1,286 field offices that SSA provided. The original list
contained 1,336 locations. Fifty locations that are not considered field
offices and, therefore, do not receive law enforcement agency requests
were excluded from the sampling frame. All 31 SSA Inspector General
offices were surveyed since these sites routinely accept law enforcement
agencies' requests for personal information. The survey was mailed
electronically to the manager in charge at SSA and Inspector General field
offices. Both office types received the same on-line survey. Survey data
were collected between February 25, 2003, and March 21, 2003. The overall
response rate was 90 percent; with 97 percent of the Inspector General's
field offices and 90 percent of SSA's field offices responding. Regional
response rates in the sample ranged from 86 percent to 95 percent across
10 regional locations.

To provide some indication of the reliability of the survey results,
standard errors were calculated. The sample was weighted in the analysis
to statistically account for the sample design and nonresponse. We are 95
percent certain that the survey estimates provided in this report are

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

within plus or minus 10 percentage points of those estimates that would
have been obtained had all SSA offices been captured.

To minimize some of the potential biases of other errors that could figure
into the survey results, we conducted pretests that included both the SSA
Inspector General and SSA field offices. Four pretest sites were SSA field
offices located in Wheaton, Maryland; Washington, D.C. (Anacostia);
Seattle, Washington; and Chicago, Illinois. One pretest site was an SSA
Inspector General office located in Washington, D.C. The pretests were
conducted either through teleconferences or face-to-face interviews, and
were completed between December 2002 and January 2003.

We conducted our audit work between August 2002 and July 2003 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

Appendix II: Chief Financial Officers' Act Agencies' Rules on Disclosure of
Records to Law Enforcement

Rule referencing Privacy Act disclosure General routine use exception of
Privacy Act Federal agencies authority permits disclosure to law
enforcementa

                            Agriculture 7 CFR 1.119

             Commerce           15 CFR 4.30(a)(5)(vii) 46 FR 63501 (12/31/81) 
             Defense                32 CFR 310.41           32 CFR 310 App. C 
            Education             34 CFR 5b.9(b)(7)         34 CFR 5b. App. B 
              Energy             10 CFR 1008.17(b)(7)  
    Health and Human Services     45 CFR 5b.9(b)(7)         45 CFR 5b. App. B 
        Housing and Urban         24 CFR 16.11(a)(5)         2001 Privacy Act 
           Development                                               Issuance 
             Interior             43 CFR 2.56(b)(5)    

Justice

                           Labor 67 FR 16816 (4/8/02)

                        State 2001 Privacy Act Issuance

           Transportation           49 CFR 10.35(a)(7)       2001 Privacy Act 
                                                                     Issuance 
              Treasury               31 CFR 1.24(a)(7)   
          Veterans Affairs          38 CFR 1.576(b)(7)   
Environmental Protection Agency     40 CFR 16.10      67 FR 8246 (2/22/02) 
                                                             2001 Privacy Act 
National Aeronautics and Space  14 CFR 1212.203(f)(7)             Issuance 
           Administration                                
      Agency for International                               2001 Privacy Act 
             Development            22 CFR 215.10(c)(7)              Issuance 

        Federal Emergency                          44 CFR 6.20(g)  67 FR 3193 
           Management                                               (1/23/02) 
             Agency                                               
        General Services              41 CFR 105-64.201(g)        
         Administration                                           
National Science Foundation                                    
       Nuclear Regulatory              10 CFR 9.80(a)(7)          67 FR 63774 
           Commission                                              (10/15/02) 
       Office of Personnel           5 CFR 293.401(g) & 406       60 FR 63075 
           Management                                               (12/8/95) 
         Small Business                 13 CFR 102.22(h)          
         Administration                                           
         Social Security                                          
         Administration        20 CFR 401.110 plus more stringent 
                                                     requirements 

Source: GAO analysis, Office of General Counsel data.

aAgencies may also have provisions for routine use disclosures for law
enforcement for specific systems of records. The 2001 Compilation of
Privacy Act Issuances provides examples of specific systems of records to
which the law enforcement routine used is applied: for example, Department
of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, Employment History Records
for Licensed Nonfederal Employees (USDA/AMS-1); General Services
Administration, Employee-related files (GSA/Agency-1); Small Business
Administration, Audit Reports (SBA 015); and Department of the Treasury,
Treasury Integrated Management Information Systems (Treasury/DO .002). The
Privacy Act Issuances are available on-line from the Government Printing
Office (www.gpo.gov).

Appendix III: Comments from the Social Security Administration

Appendix III: Comments from the Social Security Administration

Appendix III: Comments from the Social Security Administration

Appendix III: Comments from the Social Security Administration

Appendix III: Comments from the Social Security Administration

Appendix IV: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments

GAO Contacts

  Staff Acknowledgments

(130185)

Shelia Drake (202) 512-7172 ([email protected]) Jacqueline Harpp (202)
512-8380 ([email protected])

In addition to those named above, Margaret Armen, Richard Burkard, Malcolm
Drewery, Kevin Jackson, Corinna Nicolaou, and David Plocher made key
contributions to this report. Barbara Hills, Theresa Mechem, and Mimi
Nguyen provided assistance with graphics.

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