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Social Security Audit Criticizes Prisoners’ Access to Personal Data; Federal Legislation Passed

by Matt Clarke

On March 12, 2010, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Social Security Administration (SSA) released an audit report on prisoners’ access to Social Security numbers (SSNs). The report criticized eight states for providing prisoners with access to SSNs as part of their institutional jobs.

The purpose of the report was to follow-up on an August 2006 audit in which the OIG determined that prisons in 13 states allowed prisoners to access SSNs through a variety of slave labor work programs. That earlier audit noted the potential threat to SSN integrity, and recommended that the SSA and prisons work together to limit prisoners’ access to SSNs. [See: PLN, April 2007, p.24].

The 2010 report found that the SSA had taken some steps to educate prison officials about the risks associated with allowing prisoners access to SSNs. However, prisons in eight states continued to provide prisoners with access to SSNs. Generally, prisoners encountered SSNs and other personally identifiable information when they performed data entry, encoding, digital imaging or records conversion. The types of documents they worked with included criminal background checks, police reports, health records, student transcripts, tax forms, employee wage statements and Department of Labor forms.

Some security controls were in place. These included preventing prisoners from viewing names associated with SSNs, banning writing and copying in the work area, searching prisoners leaving the work area, and requiring prisoners to sign a confidentiality agreement. However, some prisoners attempted to circumvent the security precautions.

In May 2009, a Kansas state prisoner was found to be in possession of personally identifiable information following a routine strip search and mail search. The prisoner was removed from the work program and disciplined. In December 2006, a Connecticut prisoner was discovered with a file in her cell that contained personally identifiable information. A routine audit had determined that the file was missing.

The OIG audit found 15 prisons that allow prisoners access to SSNs, including one each in Alabama, Arkansas and South Dakota, two in Oklahoma, four in Tennessee and five in Kansas. Additionally, some prisoners in Kansas, Tennessee and West Virginia have access to SSNs while employed in work release programs.

The OIG recommended that prisons stop allowing prisoners access to SSNs. “Although we recognize there may be benefits in allowing prisoners to work while incarcerated, we question whether prisoners have a need to know other individuals’ Social Security numbers,” the audit stated. “Allowing prisoners access to Social Security numbers increases the risk that individuals may improperly obtain and misuse SSNs.”

Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Miskell defended the practice. “We’re extremely sensitive to the potential for any kind of access to personal identifying information and have policies to limit an inmate’s ability to write down any of this information,” he said. Miskell noted that attempts to circumvent security policies had been isolated and, so far as he knew, unsuccessful.

Others were not convinced that allowing prisoners access to other peoples’ SSNs and personal information was a good idea.

“It is essential that we rein in the widespread use and display of these numbers and keep them out of the hands of criminals and organized crime groups that now sell stolen Social Security numbers as a source of income,” remarked U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who sponsored the Social Security Number Protection Act (S. 3789), which prohibits prisoners from having access to SSNs.

The Act was signed into law in December 2010 as Public Law No. 111-318, and will phase in restrictions on allowing prisoners access to SSNs over a one-year period. The Act states, “No Federal, State, or local agency may employ, or enter into a contract for the use or employment of, prisoners in any capacity that would allow such prisoners access to the Social Security account numbers of other individuals.” However, it does not appear to specify a remedy for violations of the law and a right without a remedy is meaningless.

Sources: SSA OIG Report No. A-08-10-11042, USA Today

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