St. Louis - This spring, while most Americans were filling out the short census form, 21,000 households received a special form with an extra question. It was a test to see if Americans would voluntarily write in their Social Security numbers.
Supporters call the experiment a worthy trial of new data-gathering methods. And many Americans, who regularly give their Social Security numbers to store clerks and government officials, may see nothing ominous in such requests.
But critics charge it's another bureaucratic step toward a national identity tag. While some say that Washington already has a great deal of information about its citizens, critics say the bureaucracy is so convoluted that it's difficult to access it.
A national ID could make tracking someone's history frighteningly efficient, especially in an age when disparate private and government databases can be linked and mined so easily. This year, with privacy concerns already swirling around the census, critics' warnings could attract widespread attention.
"It certainly is a move toward a national ID requirement, which we seem to be moving toward in tiny bureaucratic steps," says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal in Providence, R.I. The Social Security number "has become akin to a domestic passport that we decried in places like South Africa."
"It's a bigger issue than many people think," adds Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas. "Because of the nature of big government, to operate and be efficient ... [it] has to keep tabs on people. The concern over privacy is a reflection of the kind of government we have."
The Census Bureau is interested in the Social Security number as a classification system because it's more accurate than names and addresses. And Census officials say the number could serve as the key to unlock information held by other government agencies.
The Social Security number could broaden dramatically the use of administrative records in all levels of government. For example, if someone refused to answer Census questions on income, the bureau could look up Social Security records.
"Administrative records could be used to get more complete information," says Steven Jost, the bureau's associate communications director. Although this technique could be used in the 2010 census, "it's not a likelihood," he adds.
This spring's test - officially, the "Social Security Number, Privacy Attitudes, and Notification Experiment" - tried various wordings to see how citizens would react. In each case, the letter accompanying the form did not explain that the form was experimental, but did state the Social Security information was voluntary. It also pointed out that the bureau sometimes used the records of other agencies.
In each case, the accompanying letter directed people with questions to a special toll-free number in Tucson, Ariz. There, Census officials logged calls to see whether Americans would object to the request.
Most didn't. Of the roughly 2,600 calls the facility received regarding the experiment, fewer than 10 involved people protesting the use of Social Security numbers, officials say.
THE experiment comes at a time when privacy is moving to the top of the public's agenda. "We've seen it explode over the last three years," says Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last fall that listed eight problems Americans might face in the new century, loss of personal privacy topped the list. "The notion of a national ID is highly unpopular with the American public."
The Social Security Administration also opposes the use of its numbers by other agencies. "The Social Security card was never meant to be used as a form of identification," says Angel Neris, public affairs specialist with the agency. "It's one of the most important numbers you have. Before I would put my number on something, I would want to know why they need it."
It's not clear how quiet the Census intended the experiment to be. Some congressmen familiar with the census say trial use of the Social Security number was fully disclosed during the planning phase.
"This wasn't hidden," says Ben Chevat, chief of staff for Rep. Carolyn Maloney, ranking member on the House subcommittee on the Census. "Congress knew what [the bureau] was doing."
But Chip Walker, communications director for that subcommittee, says staff members only stumbled on the experiments after investigating reports that thieves were posing as Census workers and asking for Social Security numbers in order to bilk credit-card accounts. "It was a surprise to us," he says.
Representative Paul, who last year led the fight against an immigration provision that would have required a national ID, is pushing to prohibit the use of Social Security numbers in this manner. "It's something I strenuously object to," he says. "If they can get away with it, they'll keep pushing it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society