Information, Please (Or Not)

Lots of talk lately about the 100-year restriction on obtaining SS-5 forms for genealogical purposes. (That’s 100 years from the birth of the applicant, so in other words, you can’t obtain unaltered forms for anyone born after 1912.) This certainly seems like overkill, as Megan Smolenyak points out in her post.

It also got me to thinking about a recent flow of coverage about a proposal to restrict access to the Social Security Death Index. Actually,  according to this story, the measure (H.R. 3475) would effectively end public access to the SSDI. The rationale is that we need to stop the theft of dead people’s Social Security Numbers to perpetrate identity fraud.

The link above is a Scripps-Howard news service piece. It was picked up and localized a lot nationwide, and focused upon a particularly low scam in which dead children’s Social Security numbers are harvested by crooks claiming fictional dependents on tax returns. Interviews with grieving parents whose children’s numbers were picked off by scam artists can only inspire helpless anger.

But. Outrage and anger might not necessarily be the best mind-frame for making a sweeping rule change that affects a whole lot of people, and not just the people quoted in the stories.

Now, keep in mind that this is a bill that just got introduced, and there’s no telling if it will go anywhere. Nevertheless, asking some additional questions isn’t a bad idea. Even if answering these questions might not reveal compelling reasons against this proposal, at least we could say we thought things through before plunging ahead.

1.  What proportion of all identity fraud each year would we eliminate by shutting down the SSDI? Huge? Medium? Small? Is it worth closing off this research tool or not? Discuss.

2. Who bears the financial cost of the tax-return fraud? It would appear to be the government (dispensing tax credits to thieves who claim false  dependents). In which case, why can’t we talk about better internal procedures rather than about shutting the index down?

3. Related question: If a person can check the SSDI for a dead person’s number, can’t other people check it too and figure out that an alleged somebody is actually dead and therefore cannot be opening bank accounts/taking driver’s tests/being claimed as a dependent? Why characterize the SSDI only as a sieve and not as a potential shield?

4. Thievery of identity bears a highly painful cost. But is this pain worth more than the pain of, say, an adoptee who is trying to trace blood kin  and is now denied a useful tool? Can we balance them out? Why or why not?

H.R. 3475 is currently referred to the Ways and Means committee, for those who like to keep score on these things. Speaking of keeping score, a great resource on records access issues affecting genealogy is the website of the Records Preservation and Access Committee, a joint effort of the FGS, the NGS and the IAJGS.


Film Watch: ‘In Heaven, Underground’

Here’s an interesting essay from filmmaker Britta Wauer, who has made a documentary about Berlin’s Weissensee cemetery. She wonders aloud, “Who would go to the cinema to watch a cemetery film?” (She needs to read more genealogy blogs!)

Anyway, the Weissensee cemetery is Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery that is still in use (after 130 years in existence, too). Wauer’s film In Heaven, Underground aims at explaining its enduring place in Berlin’s history and culture. “I wanted the screen to be filled with people telling stories of the rich lives that were once led in Berlin,” she writes.

But where to find those stories? Wauer sent out tentative queries through a magazine sent to Berlin expatriates, expecting maybe a couple of dozen responses. Within a few weeks she had a couple of hundred, from all over the world.

The trailer for the film imparts a mood that’s beguiling, and oddly uplifting:

In Heaven, Underground (official film site)

Find-A-Grave: Notable Weissensee burials

Spiegel Online: “Renovations Begin at Europe’s Largest Jewish Graveyard” (2009)


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