The Federal Trade Commission recently voted 4-0 to issue a new report recommending measures to protect against the use of Social Security numbers (“SSNs”) for purposes of identity theft. The report, titled “Security in Numbers: SSNs and ID Theft,” (“SSN Report”) is a joint product of the FTC and the other 16 federal agencies that are members of the President’s Identity Theft Task Force. In April 2007, the Task Force recommended that its member agencies explore ways to preserve the beneficial uses of SSNs while curtailing their availability and value to identity thieves. One of the ways in which the FTC studied this issue was to hold two public workshops in April 2007 and December 2007.
In the SSN Report, the FTC presents five recommendations to help curtail the use of SSNs to accomplish identity theft: (1) Improve consumer authentication (“[a]uthentication” is the process of verifying that someone is who he or she claims to be); (2) Restrict the public display and transmission of SSNs; (3) Establish national standards for data protection and breach notification; (4) Conduct outreach to businesses and consumers; and (5) Promote coordination and information sharing on use of SSNs.
The Commission suggested that Congress consider establishing national standards along these lines, which could be delineated further through agency rulemaking. Noting that some states have already passed laws to protect SSN misuse, the FTC argued that differences between various state laws complicates compliance. The Commission also recommended that Congress consider granting the FTC authority to obtain civil penalties for violations of the suggested national standards.
The new Obama Administration will likely be sympathetic to the FTC’s recommendations, and the incoming Congress can be expected to be supportive as well. If Congress does move ahead in this area, it will be critical for interested parties to voice their views and experience with respect to the valuable and legitimate use of SSNs as well as the risks of their misuse for identity theft purposes.