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Motor Vehicle Administration Has Your Social Security Number
. . . and With It, a Whole Lot More

By Paul G. Vielmetti
September 6, 2000

On a recent visit to the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to perform the perfunctory chore of obtaining a renewal of my about-to-expire driver's license, I was shocked and appalled to learn that I was required to provide the DMV with my Social Security Number (SSN) in order to obtain the necessary renewal. Moreover, the clerk advised that provision of the SSN was mandatory and that my failure to comply would result in either nonrenewal of the license or suspension of the existing one--or both.

Lacking the time and resources (and, perhaps, the nerve) to engage in the lengthy administrative appeal process and the inevitable ensuing litigation that would have undoubtedly been triggered by noncompliance with what I viewed as an unreasonable (and potentially illegal) demand, I grudgingly provided my SSN and obtained my license renewal.

Evolution of State Mandate

Annoyed by the DMV's demand for my SSN and my meek surrender thereto, I decided to engage in a bit of investigation and research in an attempt to ascertain the legal basis (if any) for what I regarded as DMV's intrusive invasion of my privacy. Although I didn't consider myself paranoid, I realized that one's SSN is generally regarded as one of the unique keys (akin to fingerprints and DNA) to one's identity and, by extension, to a host of related personal information.

Acting on my initial suspicion that the SSN requirement was the brainchild of the legislature, I first focused on changes in the Maine vehicle laws. I discovered that the laws evolved from no requirement regarding SSNs, to a permissive provision (the Secretary of State "may" require SSNs), to the current (1997) provision that the Secretary "shall" collect a person's SSN upon application or renewal of a driver's license. (To lawyers and laymen alike, the difference between "may" and "shall" is fairly unambiguous.)

Whose Idea: State or Feds?

However, upon further investigation (including telephone interviews with Maine legislators knowledgeable on the subject and informed sources in Washington), the answer to the question, "Whose idea was this anyway?" proved more elusive and convoluted than one might have initially thought.

The Maine DMV's SSN requirement evolved roughly as follows: In 1996, the Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which included a provision encouraging states to collect and share with the Immigration and Naturalization Service SSN information in an effort to crack down on illegal immigration and related problems. Anticipating the need to comply with this requirement, Maine changed its laws to give the Secretary of State the discretion ("may") to collect SSN information. When the Feds later had a change of heart and repealed the SSN feature of the Immigration Reform Act, the justification for Maine's SSN requirement evaporated.

However, in their ongoing, Orwellian effort to transform the SSN into a "national ID number," an outcome antithetical to the original 1935 Social Security Act of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Congress took another bite at the apple in the famous (or infamous) Welfare Reform Act. It was signed by President Clinton in August 1996, after he had vetoed two previous versions submitted to him by Congress.

Included in the voluminous bill were a number of sections designed to enhance the enforcement and collection of delinquent child support orders against so-called "deadbeat dads" (and moms, too, for that matter).

SSN Requirement Link to Licensure

When the amending and horse-trading dust finally settled in Congress, what ultimately emerged, among other provisions, was a requirement that every state have in place procedures requiring that the SSN of "any applicant for professional license, driver's license, occupational license, recreational license or marriage license" be recorded on the application.

Failure to accede to this unfunded (and hence arguably illegal) federal mandate could have cost states millions of dollars in withheld rebates of federal recoveries of "deadbeat dad" delinquencies. Enter the prodigious lobbying scare tactics of the Maine welfare cabal, with dire predictions of "blowing a $17 million hole" in the state budget, and our legislators supinely agreed to sell our privacy rights in exchange for federal largesse.

Individuals Challenge SSN Requirement

Why should Mainers [and others] care about this issue? Consider the case of the California acupuncturist whose refusal to provide his SSN on a license renewal application resulted in the revocation of his license to practice his profession? He sued in U.S. District Court (and lost); he appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (where he lost again); and his petition for a hearing is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And then there's the guy in Kentucky who went to register to vote and was told he had to provide his SSN in order to be properly registered. He refused, was denied the right to vote and then filed suit. His case is pending.

Assurances of confidentiality notwithstanding, all citizens should be concerned about the proliferating government efforts to obtain their SSNs without appropriate justification.

If an 18-year-old in a basement somewhere can "hack" into the Pentagon, Yahoo!, Amazon.com and other major Web sites, how hard do you think it would be for them to hack Maine DMV's database, steal your SSN (and hence your identity) and either sell that information at a considerable profit or use it to commit major fraud against you and your assets and your identity?

Paul G. Vielmetti is an attorney, columnist, and information technology professional. This editorial was reprinted with Mr. Vielmetti's permission.