Social Security Numbers: Private Sector Entities Routinely Obtain
and Use SSNs, and Laws Limit the Disclosure of This Information  
(22-JAN-04, GAO-04-11). 					 
                                                                 
In 1936, the Social Security Administration (SSA) established the
Social Security number (SSN) to track workers' earnings for	 
Social Security benefit purposes. However, the SSN is also used  
for a myriad of non-Social Security purposes. Today, public and  
private sector entities view the SSN as a key piece of		 
information that enables them to conduct their business and	 
deliver services. However, given the apparent rise in identity	 
crimes as well as the rapidly increasing availability of	 
information over the Internet, Congress has raised concern over  
how certain private sector entities obtain, use, and safeguard	 
SSN data. In previous reports, we discussed the benefits of	 
government and commercial entities using SSNs. We also examined  
how certain private sector entities and the government obtain,	 
use, and safeguard SSNs. This report provides additional	 
information on private sector uses of SSNs. The Chairman,	 
Subcommittee on Social Security, House Committee on Ways and	 
Means, asked that GAO examine the private sector use of SSNs by  
businesses most likely to obtain and use them including 	 
information resellers, consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), and	 
health care organizations. Specifically, our objectives were to  
(1) describe how information resellers, CRAs, and some health	 
care organizations obtain and use SSNs and (2) discuss the laws  
and practices relevant to safeguarding SSNs and consumers'	 
privacy. GAO makes no recommendations.				 
-------------------------Indexing Terms------------------------- 
REPORTNUM:   GAO-04-11						        
    ACCNO:   A09140						        
  TITLE:     Social Security Numbers: Private Sector Entities	      
Routinely Obtain and Use SSNs, and Laws Limit the Disclosure of  
This Information						 
     DATE:   01/22/2004 
  SUBJECT:   Consumer protection				 
	     Federal law					 
	     Identity verification				 
	     Information disclosure				 
	     Privacy law					 
	     Private sector practices				 
	     Social security number				 
	     State law						 

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GAO-04-11

United States General Accounting Office

GAO

 Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Social Security, Committee on Ways and
                        Means, House of Representatives

January 2004

SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS

Private Sector Entities Routinely Obtain and Use SSNs, and Laws Limit the
                         Disclosure of This Information

GAO-04-11

Highlights of GAO-04-11, a report to Subcommittee on Social Security,
Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives

In 1936, the Social Security Administration (SSA) established the Social
Security number (SSN) to track workers' earnings for Social Security
benefit purposes. However, the SSN is also used for a myriad of non-Social
Security purposes. Today, public and private sector entities view the SSN
as a key piece of information that enables them to conduct their business
and deliver services. However, given the apparent rise in identity crimes
as well as the rapidly increasing availability of information over the
Internet, Congress has raised concern over how certain private sector
entities obtain, use, and safeguard SSN data. In previous reports, we
discussed the benefits of government and commercial entities using SSNs.
We also examined how certain private sector entities and the government
obtain, use, and safeguard SSNs. This report provides additional
information on private sector uses of SSNs.

You asked that GAO examine the private sector use of SSNs by businesses
most likely to obtain and use them including information resellers,
consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), and health care organizations.
Specifically, our objectives were to (1) describe how information
resellers, CRAs, and some health care organizations obtain and use SSNs
and (2) discuss the laws and practices relevant to safeguarding SSNs and
consumers' privacy. GAO makes no recommendations.

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-04-11.

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

January 2004

SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS

Private Sector Entities Routinely Obtain and Use SSNs, and Laws Limit the
Disclosure of This Information

Information resellers, consumer reporting agencies, and some health care
organizations routinely obtain SSNs from their customers and have come to
rely on SSNs as identifiers that help them determine an individual's
identity and accumulate information about individuals. Larger information
resellers usually obtain SSNs from their customers and use them to
determine the identity of an individual for purposes such as employment
screening, credit information, and criminal history. Other Internet-based
information resellers whose Web sites we accessed also obtain SSNs from
their customers and scour public records and other publicly available
information to provide the information to persons willing to pay a fee.
CRAs, too, are large users of SSNs. They obtain SSNs from businesses that
furnish individuals' data to them and use SSNs to determine consumers'
identities and match the information they receive from businesses with
information stored in consumers' credit files. Finally, health care
organizations obtain SSNs from individuals themselves and companies that
offer health care plans and use them as identifiers. Some health care
organizations use SSNs as member identification numbers.

Certain federal laws help to safeguard consumers' personal information,
including SSNs, by restricting the disclosure of and access to such
information, and private sector officials we spoke with said that they
indeed take steps to safeguard the SSN information they collect.
Information resellers, CRAs, and health care organizations told us they
take steps to safeguard SSN data in part for business purposes but also
because of federal and state laws that require such safeguards. Finally,
some states are taking steps, legislatively, to address consumer concerns
regarding SSN use and privacy of their personal information. Of the 18
states we examined, at least 6 had enacted laws specifically restricting
private sector use and display of SSNs. California's law, in particular,
has had some nationwide effect on business practices in places where some
businesses have discontinued the display of SSNs in all of their
locations. Also, our review shows that several state laws are similar to
California's. In addition, while some state laws and regulations we
reviewed did not restrict or prohibit SSN use or display specifically,
they did extend beyond federal restrictions regarding the sharing of
personal information.

Private Sector Users of Social Security Numbers

Source: Social Security Administration and GAO Analysis.

Contents

  Letter

Results in Brief
Background
Private Sector Entities Routinely Obtain SSNS from Their Business

         Clients and Use Them Largely as a Tool to Identify Individuals

Federal and State Laws Affect the Disclosure of Personal Information, and
Businesses Say They Have a Proprietary Interest in Safeguarding SSNs

Concluding Observations Agency Comments

                                       1

                                      2 4

                                       6

13 23 24

  Appendix I Scope and Methodology

     Appendix II    Federal Laws Affecting Information Resellers,      
                           CRAs, and Health Care Organizations             27 
                                           GLBA                            27 
                                           DPPA                            28 
                                          HIPAA                            29 
                                           FCRA                            29 

  Tables

Table 1: Aspects of Federal Laws That Affect Private Sector Disclosure of
Personal Information 14 Table 2: Provisions Included in Enacted
Legislation Reviewed 22

Abbreviations

CRA consumer reporting agencies
DPPA Drivers Privacy Protection Act
FCRA Fair Credit Reporting Act
FTC Federal Trade Commission
GLBA Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act
HIPAA Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
SSA Social Security Administration
SSN Social Security Number

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

January 22, 2004

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

Dear Mr. Chairman:

The Social Security number (SSN) is used for a myriad of non-Social
Security purposes. Private and public sector entities frequently ask
individuals for SSNs in order to conduct their business and sometimes to
comply with federal laws. Certain private sector entities, such as
consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), information brokers or resellers1,
and health care organizations, use the SSN as a key piece of information
that enables them to conduct their business and deliver services to their
customers. For example, business clients or individual customers provide
SSNs to these entities, and the numbers are used to produce credit reports
or verify information about individuals for employment and other
purposes. However, given the apparent rise in identity theft crime, as
recently reported by the Federal Trade Commission,2 as well as the rapidly
increasing availability of personal information over the Internet,
Congress
has expressed concern over how certain private sector entities obtain,
use,
and safeguard SSN data.

We previously reported on the benefits to government and commercial
entities of using SSNs.3 To build on that work and to address Congress'
ongoing concern about certain commercial entities' use of SSNs, in this
report we focus on information brokers or resellers, CRAs (sometimes

1Information resellers are companies that amass consumer information from
various sources for the purpose of reselling such information for fraud
prevention and risk management data solution products, retail marketing,
and investigative research tools.

2Federal Trade Commission, Identify Theft Survey Report, Washington, D.C.:
September 2003.

3See U.S. General Accounting Office, Social Security: Government and
Commercial Use of the Social Security Number Is Widespread, GAO/HEHS-99-28
(Washington, D.C.: Feb 16, 1999) and Social Security Numbers: Government
Benefits from SSN Use but Could Provide Better Safeguards, GAO-02-352
(Washington, D.C.: May 31, 2002).

referred to as credit bureaus), and health care organizations, which are
the same industries that we focused on in our previous work. You requested
that we (1) describe how information resellers, CRAs, and some health care
organizations obtain and use SSNs and (2) discuss the laws and practices
relevant to safeguarding SSNs and consumers' privacy.

To determine how information resellers, CRAs, and health care
organizations obtain and use SSNs, we conducted on-site structured
interviews with six large information resellers, three large and well-
known CRAs, two large health care plans, and two health care industry
associations. We also had our investigators access the Web sites of six
Internet-based information resellers that specialize in searching for
people or obtaining information about individuals by the use of SSNs, and
our investigators paid them a fee to obtain their information. To
determine the laws and practices relevant to safeguarding SSNs, we
questioned information resellers, CRAs, health care organizations, and the
Federal Trade Commission about the relevant federal laws that limit these
entities' ability to obtain and use individuals' personal information that
includes SSNs. We also questioned the private sector entities about the
safeguards they had in place to protect SSNs and reviewed some of their
policies and procedures. However, we did not verify the extent to which
these businesses comply with their own policies, procedures, and
safeguards. To discuss actions taken by states to safeguard consumers'
privacy, we conducted site visits to two states-one that had passed
privacy legislation and one that had issued an executive order on personal
information, surveyed state audit officials in each of the 50 states, and
interviewed select industry and state officials in person or via
telephone. We also conducted a legislative review of 18 states that were
identified by state officials as having laws or proposed laws governing
SSN use.

We conducted our work between November 2002 and December 2003 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. (See
app. I for more information about our scope and methodology.)

Results in Brief	We found that information resellers, CRAs, and some
health care organizations routinely obtain SSNs from their business
clients and individual customers and have come to rely on SSNs as
identifiers that help them verify an individual's identity and accumulate
information about that person. This is particularly true of information
resellers, who amass personal information, including SSNs, from public and
private sources, and provide their products and services to a variety of
customers. Large information resellers generally limit their services to
their business clients,

including law firms and financial institutions that establish accounts
with them. Officials from these entities told us that they usually obtain
SSNs from their business clients and use the information as a factor in
determining the identity of an individual for purposes such as employment
screening, credit information, and criminal history. Other Internet-based
information resellers whose Web sites we accessed also obtain SSNs from
their individual customers and scour public records and other publicly
available information to obtain information about individuals. These
resellers provide information about individuals through the Internet to
persons willing to pay a fee to obtain the information. CRAs obtain SSNs
from businesses that furnish individuals' data, including SSNs, to them
and they also receive information from other information resellers and
public records. CRA officials told us that they use SSNs to determine
consumers' identities and match the information they receive from
businesses with information stored in consumers' credit files. Finally,
health care organizations obtain SSNs from individuals themselves and from
companies that offer health care plans. These organizations use SSNs as
member identification numbers, which enable them to identify the correct
individual, the type of coverage the individual has under the health plan,
and other information, such as medical services and prescription drugs
provided to that individual.

Certain federal laws help to safeguard consumers' personal information,
including SSNs, by restricting the disclosure of and access to such
information, and private sector officials we spoke with said that they
indeed take steps to safeguard the SSN information they collect. Federal
laws, such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Drivers Privacy Protection
Act, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, have
placed restrictions on the ways in which information resellers, CRAs, and
health care organizations may use and disclose consumers' personal
information, including SSNs. Information resellers, CRAs, and health care
organizations said that they take steps to safeguard SSN data, in part for
business purposes but also because of federal and state laws that require
such safeguards. Officials from these entities said that they employ
certain safeguards to protect against the unauthorized use and disclosure
of SSNs, such as controlling employees' access to records that contain
SSNs. In addition, officials from large information resellers and CRAs
said they require their business clients to sign formal agreements saying
that their use of SSN data will only be for legally permissible purposes
under the law. We found that some Internet-based information resellers
whose Web sites we accessed also require customers to affirm the
permissible purpose under the law for which they are obtaining the
information. However, these Internet-based information resellers did not
attempt to verify how

Background

we used the information we purchased from them. Finally, some states are
taking steps, legislatively, to address consumer concerns regarding SSN
use and the privacy of their personal information. Of the 18 states we
examined, at least 6 of them enacted laws specifically restricting private
sector use or display of SSNs.4 California's law has influenced business
practices and some states have adopted laws similar to California's. Also,
while some state laws and regulations we reviewed did not restrict or
prohibit SSN use or display specifically, they did extend beyond federal
restrictions regarding the sharing of personal information.

The Social Security Act of 1935 authorized the Social Security
Administration (SSA) to establish a record-keeping system to help manage
the Social Security program, and this resulted in the creation of the SSN.
Through a process known as enumeration, unique numbers are created for
every person as a work and retirement benefit record for the Social
Security program. SSA generally issues SSNs to most U.S. citizens, and
SSNs are also available to noncitizens lawfully admitted to the United
States with permission to work. SSA estimates that approximately 277
million individuals currently have SSNs. Because of the number's
uniqueness and broad applicability, the SSN has become the identifier of
choice for government agencies and private businesses, and thus it is used
for a myriad of non-Social Security purposes.

With the enhancement of computer technologies in recent years, private
sector businesses are increasingly computerizing their records; as a
result, these enhancements have spawned new business activities involving
the aggregation of personal information.5 Such entities aggregate large
numbers of both public and private data, including SSNs, from
recordkeeping systems throughout the country into centralized databases
and use those databases, in many cases, for the purpose of providing
consumer services. Businesses and others rely on entities such as
information resellers and CRAs to use SSNs to build credit reports,
extract or retrieve data from consumers' credit histories, verify
individuals' identities, market their products, and prevent financial
fraud.

Information resellers, sometimes referred to as information brokers, are
businesses that specialize in amassing consumer information that includes

4Arizona, California, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, and Utah. 5See
GAO/HEHS-99-28.

SSNs for informational services. They may provide their services to a
variety of customers, either to specific business clients or through the
Internet to anyone willing to pay a fee. Large information resellers limit
their services to businesses that establish accounts with them. Law firms,
private businesses, law enforcement agencies, and others are usually their
clients. For example, lawyers, debt collectors, and private investigators
may request information on an individual's bank accounts and real estate
holdings for use in civil proceedings such as divorce; automobile insurers
may want information on whether insurance applicants have been involved in
accidents or have been issued traffic citations; employers may want
background checks on new hires; pension plan administrators may want
information to locate pension beneficiaries; and individuals may ask for
information to help locate birth parents. When requesting information,
customers may ask for nationwide database searches or searches of only
specific geographical areas. Other information resellers, particularly
those that are Internet-based, generally offer their services to the
public at large for a fee.

CRAs, also known as credit bureaus, are agencies that collect and sell
information about the creditworthiness of individuals. CRAs collect
information that is considered relevant to a person's credit history.
These agencies then use this information to assign a credit score to an
individual, indicating the person's creditworthiness. Prospective
creditors purchase credit reports about specific individuals from CRAs,
and then use this information to decide how much credit, if any, to extend
to the individual.

Organizations that provide health care services also commonly use
consumers' SSNs. These organizations generally deliver their services
through a coordinated system that includes health care providers and
health plans (insurers).6 While both providers and insurers are within
this coordinated system, they are distinct from each other. For instance,
in conducting business, health care providers offer medical or health
services to patients and bill either the patient or the health plan for
those services. In contrast, health plans offer insurance to individuals
or groups of employees, who then make premium payments in exchange for
services. Some health care organizations play dual roles of both health
care provider and health insurer, which makes the distinction in how they
obtain and use SSNs more complex.

6Health plans are also referred to as health care insurers.

Because of the myriad of uses of the SSN, Congress has previously asked
GAO to review various aspects of SSN use in both the public and the
private sectors.7 In our previous work, our reports have looked at how
private businesses and government agencies obtain and use SSNs.8 In
addition, we have reported that the perceived widespread sharing of
personal information and instances of identity theft have heightened
public concern about the use of Social Security Numbers.9 We have also
noted that the SSN is used, in part, as a verification tool for services
such as child support collection, law enforcement enhancement, and issuing
credit to individuals.10 Although these uses of SSNs are beneficial to the
public, SSNs are also key elements in creating false identities. We
testified before the Subcommittee on Social Security, House Committee on
Ways and Means, about SSA's enumeration and verification processes, and
reported that the aggregation of personal information, such as SSNs, in
large corporate databases, as well as the public display of SSNs in
various public records, may provide criminals the opportunity to commit
identity crimes.11

  Private Sector Entities Routinely Obtain SSNS from Their Business Clients and
  Use Them Largely as a Tool to Identify Individuals

Information resellers, CRAs, and health care organizations routinely
obtain SSNs from their business clients and use SSNs for various purposes,
such as to build tools that verify an individual's identity or match
existing records. In addition to acquiring SSNs from various public
sources, officials from these firms said they often obtain SSNs from their
business clients wishing to use their services. For example, health care
organizations obtain SSNs from the subscriber or policyholder of the
employer group during the enrollment process. Given the various types of
services these companies offer, we found that all of them have come to
rely on the SSN as an identifier, which helps them determine a person's
identity for the purpose of providing the services they offer. These
officials said that because the SSN is a unique number, it is the most
reliable factor

7GAO-02-352, and U.S. General Accounting Office. Identity Theft:
Prevalence and Cost Appear to Be Growing, GAO-02-363 (Washington, D.C.:
March, 2002).

8GAO/HEHS-99-28.

9U.S. General Accounting Office. Social Security: Government and Other
Uses of the Social Security Number are Widespread, GAO/T-HEHS-00-120
(Washington, D.C.: May 18, 2000).

10GAO/HEHS-99-28.

11U.S. General Accounting Office. Social Security Numbers: Ensuring the
Integrity of the SSN. GAO-03-941T (Washington, D.C.: July 10, 2003).

in determining an individual's identity. However, most of the large
information resellers said that the SSN is not needed to develop many of
their products, such as products that launch e-mail marketing or
telemarketing programs, but when the SSN is used, it provides increased
accuracy and completeness in terms of trying to determine an individual's
identity.

    Large and Internet-Based Information Resellers Obtain SSNs from Their
    Business Clients, as Do CRAs and Health Care Organizations

Information resellers generally obtain SSNs from their business clients,
who often provide SSNs to obtain a reseller's services or products.
However, most of the large information reseller officials we spoke to said
that many of the products they offer do not incorporate SSN data. They
said they generally amass demographic information about households in
order to provide marketing products such as detailed data lists of e-mails
and postal addresses, and telephone numbers, or information for retailers
and others to use to obtain new customers. As a result, their business
concentrates more on marketing such products. However, these officials
said that they obtain SSNs from their business clients because they also
offer specific services, such as background checks, employee screening,
determining criminal histories, or searching for individuals. For example,
business customers of some of the information resellers who specialize in
employee screening provide them with SSNs in order to have background
checks done on potential employees.

Large information resellers also said they can obtain SSNs from various
public and private sources. For example, they obtain SSN data from public
records such as bankruptcies, tax liens, civil judgments, criminal
histories, deaths, real estate ownership, driving histories, voter
registration, and professional licenses. These officials said, however,
that the availability of SSN information in public records varied
depending on the state and county. For example, some states and counties
included SSNs in their filings of tax liens and court records, but not in
other records. Bankruptcy information, which is governed at the federal
level, always includes SSNs. All of the resellers that we spoke to said
that they obtain SSNs from public records where possible, and to the
extent the information is provided on the Internet, they are likely to
obtain it from such sources. However, given the varied nature of SSN data
found in public records, some reseller officials said they are more likely
to rely on receiving SSNs from their business clients than they are from
obtaining them from public records. Our investigators also used the Web
sites of the Internet-based resellers to try to determine the sources they
used to obtain information on SSNs. We reviewed the sources of information
the resellers listed on their Web sites. They found that they relied
mostly on public information and public

record data. For example, they listed various kinds of public record
information at the state, county, and national levels, as well as other
publicly available information, such as newspapers. As with large
information resellers, once they obtained an SSN they relied on
information in public records to help verify an individual's identity and
obtain additional information.

Some large information resellers may also obtain SSN information from
private sources. In many cases such information was obtained through
review of data where a customer has voluntarily supplied information
resellers with information about himself or herself. In addition, large
reseller officials said they also use their clients' records in instances
where the client has provided them with information. For example,
officials from one large reseller said they obtained lists of their retail
customers' credit card holders. The list includes the names, addresses,
SSNs, and other data of the credit card holders. The reseller then uses
the list to match the names of the retail company's delinquent payment
holders with the most recent bankruptcy records. In addition, Federal
Trade Commission (FTC) staff said that information resellers also obtain
information from CRAs.

We found the Internet-based resellers to be more dependent on SSNs than
the large information resellers, primarily because their focus is more
related to providing investigative or background-type services to anyone
willing to pay a fee. We found these entities to be primarily focused on
amassing information around an individual's SSN, which in most cases they
obtain from customers trying to use their Web sites. To discover what type
of information could be obtained from such sources, our investigators
accessed the Web sites of six Internet-based information resellers and
paid a fee to gain access to the personal data. We found that when we
supplied a SSN, these resellers provided with us information such as the
corresponding name, address, and telephone number and, on two occasions, a
truncated SSN such as 123-45-xxx. All but one of the Internetbased
resellers required our investigators to provide both the name and SSN of
the person who was the subject of our inquiry.

Like information resellers, CRAs also obtain SSNs from their customers or
the businesses that furnish data to them, as well as from private and
public sources. CRA officials said that they obtain SSNs from businesses
that subscribe to their services, such as banks, insurance companies,
mortgage companies, debt collection agencies, child support enforcement
agencies, credit grantors, and employment screening companies. These
businesses voluntarily report consumers' charge and payment transactions,
accompanied by SSNs, to CRAs. Individuals provide these businesses with

their SSNs for reasons such as applying for credit. CRA officials said
that they also obtain SSNs from public sources. For example, some
officials said SSNs can be obtained from bankruptcy records, a fact that
is especially important in terms of determining that the correct
individual has declared bankruptcy. CRA officials told us that they also
obtain SSNs from other information resellers, especially those that
specialize in obtaining information from public records.

CRA and information reseller officials we spoke to also said that they
would support limiting the public display of SSNs, especially where the
general public might be able to retrieve such information. For example,
they said they support removing the SSN from identification cards, health
care insurance cards, and university student identification numbers. None
of these officials, however, support removing the SSN from public records
or restricting their access to SSN data in public records. They said such
restrictions would slow some business transactions and likely increase
costs to consumers because many of the conveniences currently enjoyed by
consumers, such as obtaining instant credit, would take much longer and,
in some cases, cease to exist.

Finally, health care organization officials said that they obtain SSNs
from individuals themselves and companies that offer health care plans.
For example, subscribers or policyholders provide health care plans with
their SSNs through their company or employer group when they enroll in
health care plans. In addition to health care plans, health care
organizations include health care providers, such as hospitals. Such
entities often collect SSNs as part of the process of obtaining
information on insured people. However, health care officials said that,
particularly with hospitals, the medical record number rather than the SSN
is the primary identifier.

    Businesses Use SSNs to Verify Individuals' Identities and to Compile
    Information about Individuals

We found that the primary use of the SSN by information resellers, CRAs,
and health care organizations alike was to help verify the identity of an
individual. In addition, the SSN was also used to compile and match data
about individuals with information already in company databases. This was
particularly true of CRAs, whose officials said they usually match
individuals' SSNs with records in their data sets. Most information
reseller, CRA, and health care organization officials we spoke to said
that the SSN is the single most important identifier available, mainly
because it is truly unique to an individual, unlike an individual's name
and address, which can often change over an individual's lifetime.

Large and Internet-based Information Resellers Use the SSN as an
Identifier

Large information resellers said that they generally use the SSN as an
identity verification tool. Some of these entities have incorporated SSNs
into their information technology, while others have incorporated SSNs
into their client's databases used for identity verification. For example,
one large information reseller that specializes in information technology
solutions has developed a customer verification data model that aids
financial institutions in their compliance with some federal laws
regarding "knowing your customer." According to this company's
information, the data model compares information provided by the
applicant, such as name, address, and SSN, with the data they already have
in their databases, which is composed of multiple public and private
sources. Another information reseller that specializes in mortgage
services uses the SSN as the main factor in identifying individuals for
their product reports and also for conducting investigations for their
clients for resident screening or employment screening. Yet another large
information reseller uses SSNs for internal matching purposes of its
databases. For example, this company has various database products that
compile information to provide such products as insurance underwriting
tools.12 We also found that Internet-based information resellers use the
SSN as a factor in determining an individual's identity. Although the
Internet Web sites we accessed advertised by saying they would be able to
find a person's SSN or find a person using an SSN, these resellers in all
but one case required us as the client to supply the SSN. The information
they then provided back to us was information that usually restated what
we had given them or verified the person's SSN.

Most of the information resellers officials we spoke to said that although
they obtain the SSN from their business clients, the information they
provide back to their customers rarely contains the SSN. Almost all of the
officials said that they provide their clients with a truncated SSN, an
example of which would be 123-45-xxxx. In one case, one large information
reseller provides business products with three different access levels,
which includes the general public, subscriber products, and select
products for entities such as law enforcement. Company officials said the
subscriber level provides subscribers with truncated SSNs, while full SSNs
are viewable at the select group product level, giving the user

12Officials from this company stated that information in this database
comes from a variety of sources, such as government agencies, insurance
companies, and CRAs.

CRAs Use SSNs as Identifiers and to Match Incoming Data with Their
Existing Databases

group a tool to authenticate data about specific individuals.13 With
regard to the Internet-based information resellers we accessed, only one
provided the complete SSN back to us. These resellers usually provided
information related to the SSN we had provided them, such as name,
address, or date of birth.

CRAs use SSNs as the primary identifier of individuals that enables them
to match the information they receive from their business clients with the
information stored in their databases on individuals. Because these
companies have various commercial, financial, and government agencies
furnishing data to them, the SSN is the primary factor that ensures that
incoming data is matched correctly with an individual's information on
file. For example, CRA officials said they use several factors to match
incoming data with existing data, such as name, address, and financial
account information. If all of the incoming data, except the SSN, match
with existing data, then the SSN will determine the correct person's
credit file. Given that people move, get married, and open new financial
accounts, these officials said that it is hard to distinguish among
individuals. Because the SSN is the one piece of information that remains
constant, they said that it is the primary identifier that they use to
match data.

We found that CRAs and information resellers can sometimes be the same
entity, a fact that blurs the distinction between the two types of
businesses but does not affect the use of SSNs by these entities. For
example, information resellers that assemble or evaluate consumer credit
information for the purpose of furnishing consumer reports to third
parties would be considered CRAs under federal law, and the law restricts
what they can do with the credit report information. Five of the six large
information resellers we spoke to said they were also CRAs. CRA officials
said that they also build their own databases or purchase databases from
other companies, and then resell the information in these databases to
their customers. However, CRA officials said that information furnished
for credit reports can only be used for credit reporting purposes and

13Officials at this company said that full SSNs are obtainable by entities
or individuals who have been approved through authentication and
verification methods for access to the specific information. Such
individuals or entities would include, state, local, and federal
government entities; special investigative units and claims departments of
public and private insurance companies; collection departments of
companies that own their debt; and other public and private entities, on a
case-by-case basis, for the purposes of detecting, investigating, or
preventing fraud or other criminal activities.

Health Care Organizations Also Use SSNs to Identify Individuals but in
Some Cases Such Use Is Being Discontinued

cannot be resold. Information not covered by federal law that CRAs use to
build their databases or buy from other databases can be resold as
consulting solutions or direct-marketing products. In our discussions with
CRAs, some officials said that information reselling constituted as much
as 40 percent of CRAs' business.

Health care organizations also use the SSN to help verify the identity of
individuals. These organizations use SSNs, along with other information
such as name, address, and date of birth, as a factor in determining a
member's identity. Health care officials said that health care plans, in
particular, use the SSN as the primary identifier of an individual, and it
often becomes the customer's insurance number. Health care officials said
that they use SSNs for identification purposes, such as linking an
individual's name to an SSN to determine if premium payments have been
made, or they use the SSN as an online services identifier, as an
alternative policy identifier, and for phone-in identity verification.
Health care organizations also use SSNs to tie family members together
where family coverage is used,14 to coordinate member benefits, and as a
cross-check for pharmacy transactions. For example, health care officials
said that when people purchase pharmaceuticals, the SSN is used to help
identify the person that is authorized to receive the pharmaceuticals and
medical benefits. Health care industry association officials also said
that SSNs are used for claims processing, especially with regard to
Medicare. According to these officials, under some Medicare programs, SSNs
are how Medicare identifies benefits to an individual.

Given the increased interest in the use and protection of SSNs as well as
the recent passage of federal and state laws, health care organization
officials said that in some instances health care organizations are
limiting their use of SSNs to be in compliance with the laws. For example,
one health care organization we spoke to said that certain of its regions
no longer use SSNs as a basis for providing member records or for
identification purposes. Another region does not use the SSN to verify the
identity of members, but instead relies upon the medical record number,
date of birth, or address. In yet another region, health care insurers use
a unique account number because SSN's cannot be used as the health care
insurer's account number.

14During the enrollment process, subscribers have a number of options, one
of which is deciding whether they would like single or family coverage. In
cases where family coverage is chosen, the SSN is the key piece of
information generally allowing the family members to be linked.

  Federal and State Laws Affect the Disclosure of Personal Information, and
  Businesses Say They Have a Proprietary Interest in Safeguarding SSNs

Information resellers, CRAs, and health care organization officials said
that certain federal laws have helped to limit the disclosures they are
allowed to make to their customers. Officials from these companies said
that they are either subject to the laws directly, given the nature of
their business, or indirectly, through their business clients subject to
these laws. In addition, we found that information resellers, CRAs, and
health care organizations take steps to safeguard SSN data, sometimes by
employing safeguards to protect against the unauthorized use and
disclosure of SSNs or, in the case of large information resellers and
CRAs, requiring their clients to sign formal agreements saying that their
use of SSN data will be only for activities permissible under the law. We
also found that Internetbased information resellers also require customers
to affirm the permissible purpose under the law for which they are
obtaining the information. Finally, at least six states have enacted laws
to restrict the private sector's use of SSNs, and California's SSN law has
had some effect nationwide. In addition, some state regulations and laws
regarding the sharing of personal information have extended beyond federal
restrictions.

    Certain Federal Laws Limit Disclosure of Personal Information That Includes
    SSNs

According to officials we spoke to, certain federal laws have placed
restrictions on their use and disclosure of consumers' personal
information that includes SSNs. These laws include the Gramm-Leach-Bliley
Act (GLBA), the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), and the Health
Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). As shown in table 1,
the laws either restrict the disclosures that entities such as information
resellers, CRAs, and health care organizations are allowed to make to
specific purposes or restrict whom they are allowed to give the
information to. Moreover, as shown in table 1, these laws focus on
limiting or restricting access to certain personal information and are not
specifically focused on information resellers.

Table 1: Aspects of Federal Laws That Affect Private Sector Disclosure of
Personal Information

Federal laws Restrictions

Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act 	Creates a new definition of personal information
that includes the SSN and limits when financial institutions may disclose
the information to non-affiliated third parties.

Drivers Privacy Protection Act	Prohibits disclosing personal information
from a motor vehicle record that includes SSN except for purposes
permissible under the law.

Health Insurance Portability and Protects the privacy of protected health

Accountability Act 	information that includes SSNs and restricts health
care organizations from disclosing such information to others without the
patient's consent.

GLBA Limits Disclosure of Nonpublic Personal Information That Includes
SSNs

Source: GAO analysis.

Prior to GLBA, financial institutions had few limitations as to where,
why, and to whom they could provide customer data. GLBA helps protect
consumers' privacy and limits when a financial institution may disclose
certain types of a consumer's financial information. GLBA created a new
definition of personal information, referred to as nonpublic personal
information, which means personally identifiable financial information
that is

1. 	provided by a consumer to a financial institution (for example, name,
address, income, SSN, or other information on an application);

2. 	the result of any transaction with the consumer or any service
performed for the consumer (for example, account numbers, payment history,
loan or deposit balances, and credit or debit card purchases); or

3. 	otherwise obtained by the financial institution (for example,
information from a consumer report).15

Provisions under GLBA limit when a financial institution may disclose a
consumer's nonpublic personal information to non-affiliated third parties.

15Nonpublic personal information does not include information that is
"publicly available." In other words, the information is generally made
lawfully available to the public, and an individual can direct that it not
be made public.

Financial institutions must notify their customers about their information
sharing and tell consumers of their right to opt out if they do not want
their information shared with certain non-affiliated third parties.16 GLBA
covers a broad range of financial institutions, including many companies
not traditionally considered to be financial institutions, because they
engage in certain "financial activities." In addition, any entity that
receives consumer financial information from a financial institution under
one of the GLBA exceptions may be restricted in its reuse and redisclosure
of that information.

We found that some CRAs consider themselves to be financial institutions
under GLBA.17 These entities are therefore directly governed by GLBA's
restrictions on disclosing nonpublic personal information to
non-affiliated third parties. We also found that some of the information
resellers we spoke to did not consider their companies to be financial
institutions under GLBA. However, because they have financial institutions
as their business clients, they complied with GLBA's provisions in order
to better serve their clients and ensure that their clients are in
accordance with GLBA. For example, if information resellers received
information from financial institutions pursuant to notice and opt-outs,
they could resell the information only to the extent that they were
consistent with the privacy policy of the originating financial
institution and any opt-outs.

Information resellers and CRAs also said that they protect the use of
consumers' nonpublic personal information and do not provide such
information to individuals or unauthorized third parties. In addition to
imposing obligations with respect to the disclosures of personal
information, GLBA also requires federal agencies responsible for financial
institutions to adopt appropriate standards for financial institutions
relating to safeguarding customer records and information. Information

16An exception to this opt-out requirement is that a financial institution
may provide nonpublic personal information to a non-affiliated third party
that is performing services for or functions on behalf of the financial
institution, including marketing of the financial institution's own
products or services. The financial institution must, however, fully
disclose this to the consumer, and the non-affiliated third party must
enter into a contractual agreement to maintain the confidentiality of such
information.

17Under GLBA, the term financial institution is defined as "any
institution the business of which is engaging in financial activities as
described in section 4(k) of the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956," which
goes into more detail about what are "activities that are financial in
nature." These generally include banking, insurance, and investment
industries.

DPPA Limits Disclosure of Personal Information from a Motor Vehicle Record
That Includes SSNs

HIPAA Restricts Disclosing Protected Health Information That Includes SSNs

resellers and CRA officials said that they adhere to GLBA's standards in
order to secure financial institutions' information.

FTC staff said that although GLBA helps to limit the disclosure of
consumers' nonpublic personal information, GLBA also includes certain
broad exceptions that are unspecific (see app. II for information on
GLBA's exceptions). FTC officials said that they receive many inquiries
from CRAs and information resellers concerning the application of GLBA's
exceptions, such as whether the exceptions apply to certain circumstances.
As a result, they said it is difficult to determine how and whether
certain entities are appropriately interpreting the exceptions.

DPPA was enacted to prohibit the release and use of certain personal
information from state motor vehicle records. DPPA prohibits any person
from knowingly obtaining or disclosing personal information from a motor
vehicle record for any use not permitted under DPPA. DPPA specifies
certain exceptions when personal information contained in a state motor
vehicle record may be obtained and used, such as use by an employer or its
agent or insurer to obtain information relating to the holder of a
driver's license (see app. II for a list of permissible uses).

As a result of DPPA, information resellers said they were restricted in
their ability to obtain SSN and other driver license information from
state motor vehicle offices unless they were doing so for a permissible
purpose under the law. These officials also said that information obtained
from a consumer's motor vehicle record has to be in compliance with DPPA's
permissible purposes, thereby restricting their ability to resell motor
vehicle information to individuals or entities not allowed to receive such
information under the law. Furthermore, because DPPA restricts state motor
vehicle offices' ability to disclose driver license information, which
includes SSN data, information resellers said they no longer try to obtain
SSNs from state motor vehicle offices, except for permissible purposes.

HIPAA requires health care organizations and providers to meet certain
privacy standards with respect to personal health information. HIPAA's
privacy rule specifically states that "a covered entity must have in place
appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect
the privacy of protected health information." The privacy rule provides
patients access to their medical records, control over how their health
information may be used and disclosed, avenues for recourse if their
medical privacy is compromised, and a number of other privacy rights (see
app. II for more details on covered entities and individuals' obligations
and rights). HIPAA gives individuals the right, in most cases, to obtain
and

inspect copies of health information about themselves. In addition, it
generally restricts health care plans and certain health care providers
from disclosing such information to others without the patient's consent,
except for purposes of treatment, payment, or other health care
operations. There are, however, exceptions to facilitate compliance with
state reporting requirements and other public health purposes.

Health care organizations, including health care providers and health plan
insurers, are subject to HIPAA's requirements. In addition to providing
individuals with privacy practices and notices, health care organizations
are also restricted from disclosing a patient's health information without
the patient's consent, except for purposes of treatment, payment, or other
health care operations. Information resellers and CRAs do not consider
themselves to be "covered entities" under HIPAA, although some information
resellers said that their customers are considered to be business
associates under HIPAA. As a result, they said they are obligated to
operate under HIPAA's standards for privacy protection, and therefore
could not resell medical information without having made sure HIPAA's
privacy standards were met.

    FCRA Limits Access to Information in Credit Data

Under FCRA, Congress has limited the use of consumer reports18 to protect
consumers' privacy and limits access to credit data to those who have a
legally permissible purpose for using the data, such as the extension of
credit, employment purposes, or underwriting insurance (see app. II for a
list of FCRA's permissible purposes). However, these limits are not
specific to SSNs. All of the CRAs that we spoke to said that they are
considered to be consumer-reporting agencies under FCRA. In addition, some
of the information resellers we spoke to who handle or maintain consumer
reports are classified as CRAs under FCRA. Both CRAs and information
resellers said that as a result of FCRA's restrictions they are limited to
providing credit data to their customers that have a permissible purpose
under FCRA. Consequently, they are restricted by law from providing such
information to the general public.

18The FTC has determined that certain types of information, including
SSNs, do not constitute a consumer report under FCRA because they are not
factors in determining credit eligibility.

    Large Information Resellers, CRAs, and Health Care Organizations Employ
    Safeguards to Protect SSN Information

Large information resellers, CRAs, and health care officials said they
employ certain safeguards to mitigate the risk of individuals gaining
unauthorized access to SSNs or making improper disclosure or use of SSNs.
These officials said that potential risks occur from internal sources such
as employees' unauthorized access to information and from external sources
such as business clients and computer hackers. To address internal risks,
these officials said they (1) conduct background checks on employees, (2)
train employees on the appropriate way to handle sensitive information,
(3) teach employees about the federal and state laws governing certain
information, (4) require employees to sign written agreements that specify
what they are allowed to do with information that includes an SSN, and (5)
terminate employees and take legal actions against employees that
improperly use or disclose SSNs. For example, health care organization
officials said they train their employees on how to comply with HIPAA and
how to safeguard medical records and other types of personal information.
Some information resellers said that they take steps to control and
monitor employee access to computerized records that contain SSNs by
assigning different levels of access. Employees are, therefore, only given
access to information that they need to perform their job. In addition,
employees' access to records that contain SSNs was also monitored. For
example, some officials said they track employees browsing in records in
certain databases and monitor any unusual transactions. In some cases, CRA
and health care officials said they created audit trails for every
transaction, and these trails allow them to track employees' activities.

Officials from large information resellers and CRAs also told us that they
take action to mitigate external risks that could result in the
unauthorized use and disclosure of SSNs. Some of these officials said they
have "know your customer" policies in place. For example, one information
reseller told us that prior to the sale of information, they verify the
identity of their customers and make sure they have the necessary
credentials to obtain access to their information database. Large
information resellers and CRA officials also said they always determine
the eligibility of their customers to have access to their information by
conducting audits of their customers prior to entering into a contract
with them. For example, they determine prior to entering into a formal
contract that in the case of a CRA, the financial institution is what it
says it is and is eligible to receive credit reports. Or, in the case of
an information reseller, that a law enforcement agency is in fact a law
enforcement agency and is eligible to receive motor vehicle information.
In conducting their audits, these entities review customers' business
licenses, perform background and credit checks, and often visit the entity
itself. Some officials did say,

however, that they face certain challenges in protecting SSN data, such as
ensuring that they provide their information to legitimate businesses or
government agencies that have appropriate, legally permissible purposes to
have such information. Nonetheless, there have been cases when the
unauthorized use and disclosure of SSNs have occurred. For example, CRA
officials told us that through their audit process they discovered
instances where their clients have violated their written agreement by
using personal information for non-permissible purposes.

Large information reseller and CRA officials also said they require their
clients to sign formal agreements acknowledging that the information
provided to them will be used in accordance with permissible activities
under federal and state law. For example, if a business client wanted to
obtain information from a state motor vehicle agency, the client would
have to sign a formal agreement saying that such information would be used
only for permissible purposes, such as the verification of personal
information for the purpose of preventing fraud or the pursuit of legal
remedies against an individual. Representatives of one large reseller that
we spoke to said that they not only require their clients to indicate
which permissible use applies before they give access to information, but
they also have specific access levels, depending on their client's formal
agreement with them. For example, if the client was an investigative
police unit, then it could be granted full access to the reseller's
databases under the formal agreement, which included full SSN disclosure
as well as other personally identifiable information. Clients granted this
level of access were subject to background checks and other verification
techniques, such as on-site verifications, by the reseller.

Once a formal contract has been entered into with a customer, large
information resellers and CRA officials said that they audit their clients
to ensure that they are complying with the legal and contractual
restrictions, such as obtaining credit reports for legitimate business
purposes. In addition, these audits may be conducted either on-site or by
mail requiring the customer to provide documentation regarding the
permissible purposes for the information requested by the customer.
Officials from one entity told us they conduct an Internet "secret
shopper" program whereby they police certain Internet Web sites that sell
SSNs to make sure that their customers are not supplying these sites. In
addition, health care officials said that health insurance companies are
audited by state insurance departments to ensure that, among other things,
appropriate computer safeguards are in place.

Large information resellers and CRA officials also told us that they are
frequently audited by their customers, who need to ensure that they are in
turn in compliance with the same laws and restrictions they impose on
their clients. For example, CRA officials told us that especially with
regard to GLBA requirements, financial institutions are frequently
auditing their computer systems to make sure they meet standards under
GLBA.

We found that Internet-based information resellers require customers, upon
accessing their Web site, to acknowledge that they will abide by their
"terms and conditions" and indicate the permissible purpose for which they
are obtaining the information. For example, we found that they required
our investigators to concur with the site's terms and conditions before
any informational service was provided. In addition, two of the
Internet-based resellers provided a list of permissible purposes from
which we had to select, such as collection purposes. At these resellers'
Web sites, only after we indicated the permissible purpose for which we
would like to purchase information were we allowed to purchase personal
information by credit card. We did not find that the Internet-based
resellers attempted in any way to audit us, determine who we were, or
determine that we were indeed using the information for the permissible
purpose we had selected.

    At Least Six States Have Enacted Laws to Restrict Private Sector Use of SSNs

At least six states have enacted their own legislation to restrict private
sector uses of SSNs. Based on our review of select legislative documents
within 18 states, California, Missouri, Arizona, Georgia, Utah, and Texas
had enacted laws to restrict either the display or the use of SSNs.19 In
2001, California enacted Senate Bill (SB) 168, restricting private sector
use of SSNs. Specifically, this law generally prohibits companies and
persons from:

o  posting or publicly displaying SSNs,

o  	printing SSNs on cards required to access the company's products or
services,

o  	requiring people to transmit an SSN over the Internet unless the
connection is secure or the number is encrypted,

19In the 18 states we researched, we reviewed more than 40 legislative
documents, including relevant laws, proposed laws, legislative summaries,
and other related documents, such as state regulations, executive orders,
and referendums.

o  	requiring people to log onto a Web site using an SSN without a
password, or

o  	printing SSNs on anything mailed to a customer unless required by law
or the document is a form or application.20

Furthermore, in 2002, shortly after the enactment of SB 168, California's
Office of Privacy Protection published recommended practices for
protecting the confidentiality of SSNs. These practices were to serve as
guidelines to assist private and public sector organizations in handling
SSNs.

Similar to California's law, Missouri's law (2003 Mo. SB 61), which is not
effective until July 1, 2006, bars companies from requiring individuals to
transmit SSNs over the Internet without certain safety measures, such as
encryption and passwords. However, while SB 61 prohibits a person or
private entity from publicly posting or displaying an individual's SSN "in
any manner," unlike California's law, it does not specifically prohibit
printing the SSN on cards required to gain access to products or services.
In addition, Arizona's law (2003 Ariz. Sess. Laws 137), effective January
1, 2005, restricts the use of SSNs in ways very similar to California's
law. However, in addition to the private sector restrictions, it adds
certain restrictions for state agencies and political subdivisions.21 For
example, state agencies and political subdivisions are prohibited from
printing an individual's SSN on cards and certain mailings to the
individual. Last, Texas prohibits the display of SSNs on all cards, while
the Georgia and Utah laws are directed at health insurers and, therefore,
pertain primarily to insurance identification cards.22 None of these three
laws contain the provisions mentioned above relating to Internet safety
measures and mailing restrictions. Table 2 lists states that have enacted
legislation and related provisions.

20Cal. Civ. CodeS:1798.85.

21Political subdivisions would include counties, cities, and towns.

22Georgia's law (O.C.G.A. S:33-24-57.1(f)) and Utah's law (Utah Code Ann.
S:31-22-634) are both effective July 1, 2004. However, Utah's law provides
certain extensions until March 1, 2005. Texas' law (2003 Tex. Gen. Laws
341) is effective March 1, 2005.

Table 2: Provisions Included in Enacted Legislation Reviewed

States where provision or restriction Provision enacted

Specifically prohibits display on cards AZ, CA, GA, TX, UT

Requires Internet safety measures AZ, CA, MO,

Restricts mailing of SSNs AZ, CA

California's SSN Law Appears to Have Had Some Nationwide Effect

Some State Laws and Regulations Extend beyond Similar Federal Restrictions

Source: GAO analysis.

During the course of our work, we found that California is at the
forefront with respect to its consumer privacy protection efforts and that
the enactment of its SSN law restricting private sector display of SSNs
appears to have had some nationwide effect on business practices. For
example, a senior manager for at least one private company with locations
in California stated that the company identified 175 areas within its
organization where SSNs were being used, and 130 of these (over 74
percent) were in connection with health care organizations providing
health care services to its employees. As a result, the company has asked
all of its health care providers nationwide-regardless of respective state
laws-to discontinue their display of SSNs on health benefit cards. In
addition, according to officials representing one health care association,
as a result of the California law, by January 2006 all of its health care
plans- located in various states-are required to discontinue displaying
SSNs on their cards. In addition, our review of state legislation and
interviews of state and industry officials show several state laws are
very similar to California's law.

We found that regulations and laws in 2 of the 18 states we reviewed do
not address SSNs specifically but do extend beyond federal restrictions
regarding the sharing of "personal information," which may include SSNs.
As previously mentioned, GLBA requires that financial institutions provide
consumers the opportunity to opt out of sharing personal information with
certain third parties, meaning that unless a consumer notifies the
financial institution not to, the institution may share this information.
Alternatively, financial institutions may disclose nonpublic information
to non-affiliated third parties, including other financial institutions,
pursuant to certain exceptions in GLBA, without providing consumers a
right to opt out of those disclosures. In addition, FCRA allows those with
a legitimate, legally defined purpose or permissible purpose access to
consumers' credit information. To better address consumer concerns about
privacy and the protection of personal information, however, states such
as Vermont and North Dakota have issued regulations or enacted laws that
extend beyond the provisions of these two federal laws. For example, an
Assistant

Concluding Observations

Attorney General in Vermont stated that while Vermont does not have any
specific laws governing the use of SSNs, it has regulations requiring
banking, insurance, and securities companies to obtain consumers'
permission prior to sharing consumers' personal information-opt-in
provisions. The Assistant Attorney General added that Vermont's Fair
Credit Reporting Act has a similar opt-in requirement before permitting
access to consumer credit reports. Furthermore, until Congress passed the
GLBA, North Dakota had a banking privacy law to protect personal
information. This banking law also prohibited financial institutions in
North Dakota from selling or sharing customer data with other companies
unless the individual provided consent. The North Dakota legislature
amended the state's opt-in privacy law to make it consistent with GLBA's
opt-out requirement. However, in June 2002, following public outcry, North
Dakota voters passed a referendum reinstating the former opt-in law, again
requiring consumer consent before sharing personal information.

Information resellers, CRAs, and health care organizations are likely to
continue obtaining and using SSNs primarily to match records, since the
SSN is a key factor in determining the identity of an individual and there
is no widely accepted alternative. While these entities told us that they
typically do not resell SSNs they obtain, there are few restrictions
placed on their ability to obtain and use SSNs for their businesses,
including information obtained from public records--a primary source of
personal data for most information resellers. Certain state laws, however,
limit the disclosure of some personal information that includes SSNs.
Federal laws that have some restrictions on reselling nonpublic personal
information, such as GLBA, have broad exceptions, which entities can
broadly interpret. This broad interpretation combined with the uncertainty
about the application of the exceptions suggests that reselling personal
information-including SSNs-is likely to continue.

Private sector officials we spoke to agreed that, given the continued rise
in identity crimes, removing SSNs from public display is a step in the
right direction. However, these officials stated that they had legitimate
uses for the SSN and that restricting business-to-business access or use
of such information would hurt consumers and possibly aid identity thieves
in their attempts to assume an individual's identity by making it more
difficult for businesses to verify an individual's identity. Thus, any
restrictions Congress deems necessary regarding SSNs will have to weigh
the consequences of restricting the use of SSNs on the one hand with
legitimate business needs for the use of SSNs on the other.

Agency Comments 	We provided a draft of this report to the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration and the Chairman of the Federal Trade
Commission for their review and comment. Neither agency provided a formal
comment letter. However, the FTC provided technical comments, which we
incorporated as appropriate.

As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce its contents
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 30 days
after its
issue date. At that time, we will send copies of this report to the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration and the Chairman of
the Federal Trade Commission. Copies will also be made 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 have any questions concerning this report, please contact me on
(202) 512-7215 or George Scott at (202) 512-5932. Other major contributors
include Gwen Adelekun, Richard Burkard, Tamara Cross, Jason Holsclaw,
Raun Lazier, Kevin Murphy, and James Rebbe.

Barbara D. Bovbjerg
Director, Education, Workforce,

and Income Security Issues

                       Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

To describe how information resellers, CRAs, and health care organizations
obtain and use SSNs, we expanded on previous GAO work in this area and we
interviewed officials from large information resellers, CRAs, health care
organizations, the Consumer Data Industry Association (an international
trade association that represents consumer information companies), and the
Social Security Administration. We then selected six large and well-known
information resellers and conducted structured interviews about how they
obtained and used SSNs. We also had our investigators access six
Internet-based information resellers' Web sites. We researched such
resellers on the Internet and choose six that specialized in finding
people by their SSN or searched for people by their SSN. To understand how
CRAs obtain and use SSNs, we interviewed three large, well-known CRAs.
Finally, to determine how health care organizations were obtaining and
using SSNs, we talked to two large and well-known health care plans. One
submitted our questions to its eight regions, and the other also sought
the views of its various regions. We also talked to two health care
organizations-one that represents 1,000 health care plans, and one whose
300 members are primarily insurers. Each association asked some of its
members to determine how they obtained and used SSNs. We were unable to
determine the extent to which some of their responses were representative
of associations with similar memberships.

To determine the laws and practices relevant to safeguarding SSNs, we
determined what federal laws were helping to protect SSNs through our
discussions with information resellers, CRAs, health care organizations,
and the Federal Trade Commission. We then researched the relevant laws and
reviewed them to determine what limits were placed on the use and
disclosure of an individual's personal information, including SSN. To
report on the safeguards that information resellers, CRAs, and health care
organizations have in place to protect SSNs, we conducted site visits and
in-depth interviews with certain of these entities. We asked them about
the types of safeguards they employ to protect SSNs from both internal and
external misuse. We also reviewed their policies and procedures for
protecting SSNs. However, we did not assess the safeguards that they used
to protect SSNs. Also, the information we obtained from these entities was
self-reported and was not independently verified by GAO. Finally, to gain
an understanding of what states are doing legislatively to restrict SSN
use, we conducted site visits to two states-California and Washington;
conducted interviews with federal, state, and industry officials; and
reviewed pertinent state legislation. More specifically, our interviews at
the federal level were with officials from the Federal Trade Commission,
the Secret Service, and the Department of the Treasury. At the state
level,

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

we interviewed officials from Washington's Office of the Attorney General
and California's Office of Privacy Protection. Also at the state level, we
surveyed state audit officials in each of the 50 states to determine
whether they had conducted reviews relating to our work, whether they were
familiar with state laws affecting private sector use of SSNs, and whether
they were aware of any notable practices (within the public or private
sector) aimed at protecting consumer privacy and personal information. In
addition, we interviewed private sector businesses and organizations and
contacted some state offices of the attorney general, and identified state
laws and legislative initiatives related to the use of SSNs. This resulted
in our legislative review of 18 states (including the 2 states we visited)
that were identified as having laws or proposed laws governing SSN use.

Appendix II: Federal Laws Affecting Information Resellers, CRAs, and Health Care
Organizations

GLBA	GLBA requires companies to give consumers privacy notices that
explain the institutions' information-sharing practices. In turn,
consumers have the right to limit some, but not all, sharing of their
nonpublic personal information. Financial institutions are permitted to
disclose consumers' nonpublic personal information without offering them
an opt-out right in the following circumstances:

o  	to effect a transaction requested by the consumer in connection with a
financial product or service requested by the consumer; maintaining or
servicing the consumer's account with the financial institution or another
entity as part of a private label credit card program or other extension
of credit; or a proposed or actual securitization, secondary market sale,
or similar transaction;

o  with the consent or at the direction of the consumer;

o  	to protect the confidentiality or security of the consumer's records;
to prevent actual or potential fraud, for required institutional risk
control or for resolving customer disputes or inquiries, to persons
holding a legal or beneficial interest relating to the consumer, or to the
consumer's fiduciary;

o  	to provide information to insurance rate advisory organizations,
guaranty funds or agencies, rating agencies, industry standards agencies,
and the institution's attorneys, accountants, and auditors;

o  	to the extent specifically permitted or required under other
provisions of law and in accordance with the Right to Financial Privacy
Act of 1978, to law enforcement agencies, self-regulatory organizations,
or for an investigation on a matter related to public safety;

o  	to a consumer reporting agency in accordance with the Fair Credit
Reporting Act or from a consumer report reported by a consumer reporting
agency;

o  	in connection with a proposed or actual sale, merger, transfer, or
exchange of all or a portion of a business if the disclosure concerns
solely consumers of such business;

o  	to comply with federal, state, or local laws; an investigation or
subpoena; or to respond to judicial process or government regulatory
authorities.

Appendix II: Federal Laws Affecting Information Resellers, CRAs, and
Health Care Organizations

DPPA

Financial institutions are required by GLBA to disclose to consumers at
the initiation of a customer relationship, and annually thereafter, their
privacy policies, including their policies with respect to sharing
information with affiliates and non-affiliated third parties.

The DPPA specifies a list of exceptions when personal information
contained in a state motor vehicle record may be obtained and used (18
U.S.C. S: 2721(b)). These permissible uses include:

o  for use by any government agency in carrying out its functions;

o  	for use in connection with matters of motor vehicle or driver safety
and theft; motor vehicle emissions; motor vehicle product alterations,
recalls, or advisories; motor vehicle market research activities,
including survey research;

o  	for use in the normal course of business by a legitimate business, but
only to verify the accuracy of personal information submitted by the
individual to the business and, if such information is not correct, to
obtain the correct information but only for purposes of preventing fraud
by pursuing legal remedies against, or recovering on a debt or security
interest against, the individual;

o  	for use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or
arbitral proceeding in any federal, state, or local court or agency;

o  for use in research activities;

o  	for use by any insurer or insurance support organization in connection
with claims investigation activities;

o  for use in providing notice to the owners of towed or impounded
vehicles;

o  	for use by a private investigative agency for any purpose permitted
under the DPPA;

o  	for use by an employer or its agent or insurer to obtain information
relating to the holder of a commercial driver's license;

o  	for use in connection with the operation of private toll
transportation facilities;

Appendix II: Federal Laws Affecting Information Resellers, CRAs, and
Health Care Organizations

  HIPAA

o

o

  FCRA

o  	for any other use, if the state has obtained the express consent of
the person to whom a request for personal information pertains;

o  	for bulk distribution of surveys, marketing, or solicitations, if the
state has obtained the express consent of the person to whom such personal
information pertains;

o  	for use by any requester, if the requester demonstrates that it has
obtained the written consent of the individual to whom the information
pertains;

for any other use specifically authorized under a state law, if such use
is related to the operation of a motor vehicle or public safety.

The HIPAA privacy rule also defines some rights and obligations for both
covered entities and individual patients and health plan members. Some of
the highlights are:

Individuals must give specific authorization before health care providers
can use or disclose protected information in most nonroutine
circumstances, such as releasing information to an employer or for use in
marketing activities.

Covered entities will need to provide individuals with written notice of
their privacy practices and patients' privacy rights. The notice will
contain information that could be useful to individuals choosing a health
plan, doctor, or other service provided. Patients will be generally asked
to sign or otherwise acknowledge receipt of the privacy notice.

Covered entities must obtain an individual's specific authorization before
sending them marketing materials.

Congress has limited the use of consumer reports to protect consumers'
privacy. All users must have a permissible purpose under the FCRA to
obtain a consumer report (15 USC 1681b). These permissible purposes are:

o  as ordered by a court or a federal grand jury subpoena,

o  as instructed by the consumer in writing,

o  	for the extension of credit as a result of an application from a
consumer or the review or collection of a consumer's account,

Appendix II: Federal Laws Affecting Information Resellers, CRAs, and
Health Care Organizations

o  	for employment purposes, including hiring and promotion decisions,
where the consumer has given written permission,

o  	for the underwriting of insurance as a result of an application from a
consumer,

o  	when there is a legitimate business need, in connection with a
business transaction that is initiated by the consumer,

o  	to review a consumer's account to determine whether the consumer
continues to meet the terms of the account,

o  	to determine a consumer's eligibility for a license or other benefit
granted by a governmental instrumentality required by law to consider an
applicant's financial responsibility or status,

o  	for use by a potential investor or servicer or current insurer in a
valuation or assessment of the credit or prepayment risks associated with
an existing credit obligation, and

o  	for use by state and local officials in connection with the
determination of child support payments, or modifications and enforcement
thereof.

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