Government agencies break the law by improperly demanding your Social Security number.

Across the country, many public safety officials strongly recommend people protect themselves from identify theft by not providing their Social Security numbers to anyone unless required to by law. Yet governmental agencies are the worst offenders in needlessly asking for the number.

This practice, usually done simply out of convenience to the bureaucracy, is often accomplished illegally. The federal Privacy Act of 1974 clearly spelled out how a governmental body should request an SSN, and required a disclosure statement to explain why the number was being requested and what it would be used for. This mandated statement, however, appears on very few government forms that request an SSN.

To implement the Privacy Act in Arizona, the Attorney General issued opinions on the subject in both 1982 and 1985. As part of the latter, A.G. Bob Corbin, responding to a Motor Vehicle Division request on how it should handle the collection of SSNs, wrote, "We advise you that the information (concerning a disclosure statement) must be either included in the form on which the social security number is requested, or conveyed individually to each person in connection with the request, such as by means of a separate form that a person may read and retain."

Despite that advice, governmental agencies throughout Arizona continued to collect Social Security numbers without providing the disclosure information required by federal law. Almost one year ago (see "A Number of Problems," March 9, 2000), a survey of local and state agencies found they all intended to at least address the issue and correct their forms that requested SSNs. So 11 months after the last look, how are these agencies doing in complying with a 26-year-old law?

According to Lisa D'Oca, legal advisor for the Tucson Police Department, the city's effort to review and revise its 140 forms that requested an SSN is still in progress. But it is her understanding that all of the forms on which the public was asked to provide the number have been corrected; some now have disclosure statements, and on others the request has been removed entirely.

Pima County officials took a different approach to the issue with their more than 150 forms that asked for an SSN, roughly 30 to 40 percent of which involved the public. They concentrated on converting county employee identification numbers to a different system, dropping the SSN's use for that purpose. Other than that, Pima County hasn't done much to conform with the Privacy Act in the last year.

It was because of Willy Bils, a law school graduate listed in the Privacy Journal's Directory of Privacy Professionals, that the city, county and state governments began to look at their forms a few years ago. Bils now says of the county's lack of effort in complying with the Privacy Act, "On this issue, the Board of Supervisors is a group of ghosts. They might as well not know about it."

Up in Phoenix, in late 1999 the director of the state's Department of Administration, J. Elliott Hibbs, recommended that every state agency review its own forms to "Determine if there exists an exemption to the Privacy Act; É (if) no exemption exists, determine whether disclosure is mandatory or voluntary; by what statutory or other authority such number is solicited; and what uses will be made of the number."

Alex Turner from Hibbs' office reports that the department has reviewed its own forms, and fewer than 10 still request an SSN. But, he says, his office can only suggest that other state agencies comply with the provisions of the Privacy Act, and he doesn't know if they have done so or not.

According to Patty Urias, spokeswoman for current Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, the A.G. doesn't keep track of which state agencies are complying with the law, either. "We inform them of the provisions of the law," she says, "but it is their responsibility to comply."

Willy Bils is especially critical of the state's attitude given the 15-year-old Attorney General's opinion. "What the state has done is window dressing. These administrators and their attorneys are presumed to know the law, but they're intentionally ignoring it. They are clearly dragging their feet. There should have been a much stronger statement from the Attorney General to all state agencies," Bils says.

Since it continued to collect Social Security numbers without adding the recommended disclosure statement after the 1985 Attorney General's opinion, Bils has special contempt for the Motor Vehicle Division. Millions of Arizonans use their SSN as their driver license number, and MVD is now charging people a fee if they want it replaced.

"If someone illegally induced millions of people to part with their money, we would likely call it racketeering," Bils says. "But when MVD charges 2 million drivers $4 each to remove the SSN, which it unlawfully obtained from them without a Privacy Act warning, it calls this a public service to protect your privacy. That's unfair at the least, and at worst might be evidence of a government scam."

At the federal level, progress on a local Social Security-related issue has also been very slow. In 1998, after the University of Arizona released tens of thousands of the numbers to two private businesses as part of its "CatCard" fiasco, a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office.

More than two years later, the complaint is still pending and the department's staff won't comment on it. All they will say is that some investigations can take a couple of years to complete, even though the university's case is now well into its third year.

More hopeful for those who would like to see less use of SSNs by governmental agencies is the status of Texas Representative Ron Paul's bill to prohibit the use of the number for anything other than Social Security and tax purposes. Norman Singleton, from Paul's Washington, D.C. office, indicates that the bill had hearings before two Congressional committees last year and he has hopes that the House Government Reform Committee may look favorably upon it in the future.

Summing up the view that he and other privacy advocates have of the importance of their efforts, Willy Bils points to a 1928 U.S. Supreme Court decision: "Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. É If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law; invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy."