SSDI: Time To Get Mad

So last month I (among many, I know) was wondering about where all this rumbling about the SSDI was going to lead. An eye-catching story from the Scripps Howard News Service had focused on cases in which the Social Security numbers of dead children were used to claim them fraudulently on tax returns, and legislators were mentioned as being very concerned. Given the trigger words like “children,” “fraud” and “safety,” it seemed reasonable to await another shoe dropping.

Well. This week Ancestry.com pulled free access to the SSDI. It’s still available to subscribers, with Social Security numbers removed from individuals who have died within the past decade. Kimberly Powell summarizes what’s going on here, reporting that the move appears to be prompted by a petition from Sens.  Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois).

The other essential post is Megan Smolenyak’s reasoned and eloquent defense of the SSDI as a readily available research tool. It contains much that I searched for in vain in the Scripps stories — including an attempt to assess exactly how many dead children’s identities are stolen by strangers each year. The number appears to be far lower than the instances in which children’s identities are stolen and misused by their own parents. This finding,  if it continues to hold up, reinforces my impression that a rather emotionally manipulative campaign is achieving a panic-stricken result.

How to achieve some organized pushback? Who else besides Megan is pointing out the ways in which the SSDI is used to prevent fraud? What institution is responding on behalf of the researchers for whom the SSDI is an essential tool in discovering lost identities, reclaiming the John and Jane Does, repatriating the remains of long-dead military personnel?

One last thought: Ancestry.com is, for better or worse, synonymous with “genealogy” for Jane and John Q. Public. But I’m afraid this situation may be highlighting a bit of a problem: Big-business genealogy may not equate with genealogy advocacy.  It’s very tough when senators come calling and a national news service is writing frightening stories. But Ancestry, with that iconic brand name and a base of the enthusiasts who made its fortune, could certainly be in a position to educate panic-stricken lawmakers and push back on news stories that paint incomplete pictures. If it wanted to.

Meanwhile, you and I can educate ourselves by reading the summaries from Kimberly and Megan. Then we can write to the senators listed above. Hey, somebody has to.

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