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Social Security equation

It's against the law for the government to divulge your Social Security number. But it's perfectly legal for others to.

Government agencies are legally prevented from releasing your Social Security number. But no one else is.

Legally, anyone who has your number can give it to anyone else, and it happens all the time.

And that is worrisome, says Pam Rein, a spokeswoman with the Social Security Administration. If someone else gets your number, they could use it to impersonate you and do things like set up phony credit card accounts in your name, she said.

Social Security numbers were never intended to be the key to citizen's private lives. When the Social Security Administration was formed in 1935, it started passing out nine-digit numbers to track people's earnings and benefits. The only protests were by civil libertarians who worried that the number would be used as a national identity card.

 More info on privacy
Electronic Privacy Information Center
Electronic Frontier Foundation
The American Civil Liberties Union
Computer Professionals For Social Responsibility
Their fears came true, not because of what Social Security did, but because the number became the most reliable way to identify people. Now agencies including credit card companies, banks, universities, insurance companies, and motor vehicle departments routinely ask for and use the number as identification.

That's why so many people were so alarmed when they found out that the Lexis-Nexis research service was releasing Social Security numbers over the Internet to subscribers of its P-TRAK service. Netizens flooded Lexis-Nexis with calls demanding that the service remove their numbers from the database. Lexis-Nexis agreed to remove that part of the service.

But the fact is, if Lexis-Nexis disappeared tomorrow, your number would be no safer. Lexis-Nexis is only one of a great many services that buy the information and then sell it back to attorneys, private investigators, and others. In other words, your Social Security number is everywhere.

People can refuse to divulge their numbers whenever possible, but it is pretty much impossible to keep it a secret, Social Security's Rein acknowledged. And the Internet has not only made people more aware about the issue, she said, but has also made numbers more available.

That's why privacy experts urge Netizens to become involved in protecting privacy. "It's important to get people involved in this as a battle, [so that they don't] see it as something that we've given up on," said Karen Coyle, a privacy expert with Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "Having seen the kind of reaction to something like the P-TRAK database got, I think there's lot of potential for a consumer rebellion and I think it will be effective."