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House panel slaps limits on sale of Social Security numbers

Panel approves a bill that backers say will help fix the problem of Social Security number misuse and identity theft. But it has a long and uphill battle to go before it becomes law.

A House of Representatives panel on Wednesday approved a bill that backers say will help fix the problem of Social Security number misuse and identity theft.

By a vote of 41 to 0, the House Ways and Means Committee voted for a 56-page bill that the panel's chairman, New York Democrat Michael McNulty, said would "stop giving access to our Social Security number to every Tom, Dick or Harry who seeks it."

Your Social Security card: Supposedly 'Not For Identification Purposes.' And remember, you should always trust your government.

The bill, called the Social Security Number Privacy and Identity Theft Protection Act, was introduced earlier this week.

Some of its major components:

• A requirement that government agencies not include SSNs on checks, identity cards issued to government employees, or medical tags issued to patients in government hospitals such as ones run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

• A broad prohibition on the sale or purchase of SSNs by private companies. There are exceptions, of course, for areas related to law enforcement, "national security purposes," "public health purposes," tax enforcement, and for a state or federal government agency (or contractor) that claims its research will help in "advancing the public good."

• A ban on the display of SSNs on "any card or tag issued" to provide access to "any goods, services, or benefits"--which seems intended to sweep in employer ID cards, student and faculty ID cards, and cards issued by health care providers.

• Criminal penalties for anyone who "possesses" someone else's SSN with intent to commit a serious crime or sells his own to, say, an illegal immigrant to use. Depending on the details, violations can be punished with one year to five years in prison.

Is this going to go anywhere? It could, but don't bet on it.

Modern political history is littered with the corpses of proposals to slap rules on SSN use. Here's one we wrote about last year--and, yikes, here's one from the archives over a decade ago describing a Dianne Feinstein proposal to "limit the commercial use of Social Security numbers."

Privacy activists are sure to push hard for this one, as they have without success in the past.

Consumers Union, U.S. PIRG, and the Consumer Federation of America wrote a letter Tuesday to the committee saying the "protections provided by the legislation will go far in deterring widespread and unnecessary sale, purchase, and display of Social Security account numbers that contribute to the identity theft epidemic victimizing approximately 10 million consumers annually."

But, unless there's some privacy equivalent of Chernobyl in the next few months, they may be outgunned by the usual alliance of data warehousing firms, private investigators, and so on that oppose federal intervention. Jennifer Barrett, chief privacy officer for data broker Acxiom, is already saying this legislation needs more exceptions for "legitimate" SSN uses, such as employee background checks that Acxiom provides.