Communications and Media

Is Someone Keeping Track of You

  • Federal lawmakers want to pass a new law requiring biometric Social Security cards
  • It's not the first time this type of technology has been requested by federal lawmakers or even used by federal agencies
  • For years, states have been using scanners to confirm a person's ID and age
  • There are concerns these technologies may be used to keep track of you


Your identity is special, unique, and very valuable. Just ask any identity thief. That's why you should take precautions to protect it. It's also a big reason why the federal government is taking steps to protect it. Many state governments are doing the same.

Are these efforts meant to help the government keep tabs on you? Is it an invasion of your privacy rights?

Hi-Tech Social Security Cards

In 2010, federal lawmakers are poised to introduce a new law requiring biometric Social Security cards. These cards would contain biometric data unique to the card holder, such as a fingerprint or DNA sample.

The main reason for the new cards is to strengthen immigration enforcement. Employers would be required to swipe potential employees' cards to make sure they're in the country legally. The card would help plug some of the holes in the federal E-Verify system, meant to stop US employers from hiring illegal immigrants.

Not Exactly New

The use of biometric identification isn't new, even when it comes to Social Security cards. A federal law introduced in Congress in 2009 intending to protect senior citizens from identity theft and to strengthen national security by requiring biometric social security cards. It wasn't passed into law, though.

Today, through the US-VISIT program, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) collects biometric information from international travelers as they enter the US. Among other things, collected digital fingerprints and photographs help officials determine if someone is eligible for a visa or entry into the US, as well as identifying travelers who've stayed in the US after their visas have expired.

Digital information on ID cards isn't new either. For several years, states have put digital identification information on drivers' licenses and state-issued ID cards. That information can be scanned by special machines similar to the ones used for the new Social Security cards to verify the cardholder's identity and age. Why? Fake IDs may be easy to make, but it's nearly impossible to forge the digital information.

These scanners are commonly used by stores and retailers who sell age-restricted items. For example, in Ohio, a store owner may avoid fines or criminal liability for selling alcohol or tobacco to someone underage if the owner can show he or an employee scanned the person's ID. The scanner collects certain information, such as the date and time of the scan and the ID on the card.

Legal Issues

There are concerns this new technology may be abused to invade your privacy and that the information isn't secure from theft. Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham, the supporters of the new Social Security card, claim your biometric and other information won't be stored on government computers and the cards won't hold private or medical information or tracking devices.

However, it's possible that the new cards, coupled with US-VISIT, could track people as they enter and leave the US. Also, it seems likely biometric information would have to be stored in some central location to be analyzed when a card is swiped. Information on drivers' licenses and state ID cards typically is stored on a government computer. A data base of digital fingerprints and DNA would be a treasure trove for identity thieves.

Information is also stored on scanners. Scanners may be stolen, or information may be compromised by nosy employers and employees. In most states that use them, anyone who accesses information stored on a scanner without justification - such as to answer questions from an alcohol or tobacco agency - faces civil fines and possible criminal prosecution. It's unclear what penalties, if any, the new Social Security card law hold.

What You Can Do

First, if you like or don't like the idea of a biometric ID card, tell your elected officials in the US House of Representatives and Senate why you support or oppose the idea.

The same goes for digital personal information on your driver's license. Contact your state lawmakers and tell them what you think. If your license already has digital information on it, and you're asked to let the store scan it where you buy alcohol, tobacco, or even cough medicine, you have two choices:

  • Let them scan it and go on your way
  • Refuse to let them scan it, which, usually, means they won't sell you the item and you'll have to go to another store

Where do you stand? Is the government taking the rights steps to protect our identities and national security or is it a "conspiracy" to keep tabs on us? Only you can answer that.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is there any way I can find out if my personal information on my driver's license has been scanned or looked at without my knowledge?
  • Will I have to pay for the new Social Security card?
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