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Feel Like a Number

By Joab Jackson | Posted 9/2/1998

A few jobs back, I worked for a company that suddenly got the idea to drug-test its employees on a random basis. The brass gathered us around the meeting-room table to give us the good news; probably knowing some of us all too well, they explained there would be a 30-day leeway before handing out the cups--enough time for any trace of illicit substances to drain from our systems, I suppose. I was OK with it all until they passed out the consent forms, on which we had to fill in our Social Security numbers.

"I thought companies couldn't use Social Security numbers for employee identification," I said.

"I didn't know that," my boss replied, trying to brush off the subject as she usually did whenever I heckled her. (I found out later that companies can use employees' SSNs as identification with their consent--not that anyone asked us.)

"You know, I don't mind being tested," I went on, looking around at my coworkers, "but I really object to my Social Security number being used for this."

I was trying to make an important point, but everyone figured I was just bitching. "Joab," someone groaned. "Come on. They're giving you 30 days to cool out." They all hooted heartily, but I pressed on.

"No, no, no. This isn't about some piss test," I snorted. "This is about our privacy."

"Yeah, right."

It's hard to explain the abstract vulnerabilities we face when giving out our SSN. This is not just some random number, folks. It's one that people can use to get our personal information, or even to impersonate us. What would stop a disgruntled employee with access to these numbers (say, a payroll clerk fired for, say, failing a drug test) from using a few SSNs to apply for credit cards? For that matter, now that our employers are filing everything they know about us--job performance, salary history, sick days taken--under one globally unique number, what would stop them from one day selling it to other companies that are potential employers?

These are all hypotheticals, of course, and you can sound pretty paranoid articulating them, especially when so few people get burned by identity theft or database mining. But the trend of using SSNs as identification and where it all can lead is unsettling--especially given how the Social Security Administration has long claimed these nine digits shouldn't be used for ID purposes.

It's why privacy advocates are up in arms over a guideline proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), one written to comply with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed by Congress in 1996 to cut down on employment of illegal immigrants. On the surface the proposal seems mundane enough: It calls for states to obtain drivers' Social Security numbers, either to put them on the licenses or to keep them on file. If someone would want to use a driver's license as identification to, for example, apply for a government job or loan, the license would have to be from a state that follows this guideline.

So how would this cut down on illegal immigrants landing government jobs? Don't ask me. And I can't figure out why having a Social Security number should be a prerequisite to driving a car. This point was raised by Alabama resident Scott McDonald, Webmaster of Network USA (http://www.networkusa. org), a watchdog Web site on privacy issues. Like Maryland, Alabama already requires a Social Security card as identification to obtain a driver's license. In 1997, McDonald's 15-year-old twins were refused learner's permits for not having SSNs. (McDonald opposes SSNs on religious grounds. On the Web site he points to biblical warnings against the numbering of people.) Being an advocacy type, McDonald sued the state of Alabama; the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

Whether the Transportation Department proposal marks the beginning of a "national identification card," as McDonald and other vocal critics say, remains to be seen. "It's certainly not the intention," says Heidi Coleman, an NHTSA attorney. She says it wouldn't establish a national driver's license, just a voluntary guideline for states to follow in issuing licenses.

Still, McDonald fears how the cards will be used in the future, foreseeing a time when "every purchase you make will be recorded. All your medical records will be recorded. You won't be able to board planes or go places unless you have that ID." When more parties use SSNs as identification, more information can be collected about individuals. Do you want the government to know everywhere you go, everything you buy? (The Department of Transportation has extended its deadline for comments on the State-Issued Driver's Licenses and Comparable Identification Documents proposal until Oct. 2. For more information see the Network USA site.)

Perhaps McDonald is just indulging in the hypothetical. Or perhaps the driver's-license proposal, like my company's drug test, harbors more dangerous possibilities beyond its apparent intent. n

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