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Politics

Bill opens Social Security access

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 19, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - Without debate, the Legislature is poised to pass a law that gives private companies continued access to individual Social Security numbers for business purposes.

A bill that sped through a House council Wednesday re-enacts a 5-year-old law that restricts public access to Social Security numbers, and a similar bill awaits a Senate vote. Florida's public records exemptions are periodically reviewed and re-enacted by lawmakers.

The 2007 version contains provisions favored by lobbyists for banks, credit card companies, news media organizations and for-profit data "aggregators" such as ChoicePoint and Lexis-Nexis. They depend on Social Security numbers found in all kinds of government records to provide accurate data to banks, police agencies and other clients.

Businesses say they need continued access to the unique nine-digit numbers they mine from numerous government records to verify identities, run credit checks and track sex offenders.

Florida's support of allowing broad commercial access to Social Security numbers pits personal privacy against the speed with which consumers expect to transact commerce. The information industry says consumers worry about a breach of privacy, yet demand instant credit approval when they buy a car.

Business lobbyists said the law is tightly written to prevent abuses, that state agencies must tell the Legislature who wants the information, and that they knew of no cases of identity theft in Florida linked to commercial use of Social Security numbers.

The only opposition so far is from the Florida League of Cities, which urged the Legislature to allow commercial access to "truncated" numbers the first five digits to give individuals a little more privacy. Businesses opposed that.

Scott Dudley, a lobbyist for cities, said a person who gives a Social Security number to a city official for, say, a utility hookup, may not be aware that a private company can get access to it.

"We think it's bad for consumers. It makes people's Social Security numbers essentially public records," Dudley said.

Dudley said the bill's worst loophole is an overly broad definition of who can get the numbers, which includes "any enterprise, franchise or association that performs a commercial activity in this state," which Dudley defined as a one-man lawn mower service.

The bill (GEAC 07-08) states in part: "An agency [of state government] may not deny a commercial entity engaged in the performance of a commercial activity access to Social Security numbers, provided the Social Security numbers will be used only in the performance of a commercial activity."

A business must sign a written statement stating why it needs the number and how it will be used. Bulk sales of Social Security numbers are prohibited.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 02:00:23]


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