Service pulls Social Security numbers

National research firm Lexis-Nexis pulled millions of Social Security numbers from its new service after a CNET report raised concerns about potential fraud based on the information.

2 min read
A national research firm has pulled millions of Social Security numbers from a new search service after the company and government officials received complaints about potential misuse of confidential information.

Lexis-Nexis said it took the emergency action yesterday after CNET reported that dissemination of the numbers through the firm's new P-TRAK Personal Locator file could increase the potential for fraud or other illegal activities. In marketing literature sent to its 740,000 subscribers last week, P-TRAK was described as "a quick, convenient search [that] provides up to three addresses, as well as aliases, maiden names, and Social Security numbers" and "puts 300 million names right at your fingertips" for charges starting at about $125 a month.

"The product has been in use for the last ten days, and we have received some complaints about the information being available, so we made the decision not to display Social Security numbers anymore on these records," said Judith Schultz, public relations manager for Lexis-Nexis. "The company has also been cognizant of regulatory and public sensitivities regarding any potential misuse of this information."

It was this potential that led the federal officials to contact the Electronic Privacy Information Center with their concerns. "We have been contacted by people on [Capitol] Hill who are very concerned about this product," said David Sobel, legal counsel with EPIC, an online civil rights organization. Sobel said congressional officials expressed their concern after reading the CNET report.

Fraud involving Social Security numbers has increased in recent years, alarming law enforcement authorities across governmental departments. Stolen numbers have been used in crimes ranging from credit card fraud to illegal immigration.

For that reason and others, federal law specifically protects the confidentiality of Social Security numbers. "Armed with one's SSN, an unscrupulous individual could obtain a person's welfare benefits or Social Security benefits, order new checks at a new address on that person's checking account, obtain credit cards, or even obtain that person's paycheck," according to an appellate court ruling in Greidinger vs. Davis, a 1992 Virginia case involving disclosure of Social Security numbers.

Lexis-Nexis defended P-TRAK in an interview earlier this week, saying the company could not be held responsible for what is done with the service's information. But company officials have since reconsidered their policy.

"I'm glad that they pulled that feature. They should pull the whole thing," said David Banisar, policy analyst with EPIC. "They were probably fairly nervous about the fraud aspect of this. In addition, none of these companies likes bad publicity."

Related stories:
Research service raises privacy fears
Privacy in the Digital Age
Rules issued for online privacy
Children-targeted marketing under fire
Focalink to help scope out audiences
RealAudio coverage: CNET Radio