Communications and Media

Governmental Use of Social Security Numbers

Social Security numbers are unique numbers given to all United States citizens as a means of identifying them for tax and pension purposes. Social Security numbers have also become a generally used means of identification for other purposes. However, there are laws in effect that restrict the disclosure and use of private information. One of these laws is the Privacy Act of 1974, which puts some restrictions on governmental use of Social Security numbers.

Individuals Can Refuse to Disclose

Section 7(a)(1) of the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, provides that federal, state and local governments cannot deny any individual any right, benefit or privilege provided by law because of the individual's refusal to disclose his or her Social Security account number. This provision does not apply to:

  • Any disclosure which is required by federal law
  • Any disclosure of a Social Security number to any federal, state or local agency maintaining a system of records in existence and operating before January 1, 1975, if such disclosure was required by law to verify the identity of an individual

The Tax Reform Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 405(c)(2)(C)(i), (iv) (2000), exempts state agencies from this restriction if the Social Security numbers are used for the administration of tax, general public assistance, driver's license or motor vehicle registration laws within its state. For example, a taxpayer must provide his or her Social Security number when filling out state tax forms. Also, if a driver applies for a driver's license renewal, he or she can be legally required to provide his or her Social Security number to the state agency.

Agency Must Disclose Reasons

Section 7(b) of the Privacy Act requires that any federal, state or local government agency which requests an individual to disclose their Social Security account number must inform the individual:

  • Whether that disclosure is mandatory or voluntary
  • By what law or other authority such number is solicited
  • What uses will be made of it

If a federal government agency fails to disclose its reasons and authorities for obtaining the Social Security number, the Privacy Act allows that individual to sue the federal agency. If a state or local government agency fails to comply with § 7(b) of the Privacy Act, an individual can sometimes sue the agency under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of his or her rights. The person may also have a right to sue under other laws.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I refuse to disclose my Social Security number to the Internal Revenue Service?
  • Can my State Department of Motor Vehicles require me to disclose my Social Security number when I get my car licensed?
  • Does a government agency have to tell me why they are requesting my Social Security number?
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