The Card - Can't Leave Home Without It
by Wendy McElroy

Congress now requires ham radio hobbyists to provide a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) "consistent with the requirements of the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996" in order to get a radio license. The TIN specified is a Social Security Number (SSN). Radio amateurs already have to pass a government examination to obtain a license. And, for decades, hams have been regulated as to permissible content, contacts, bandwidths, etc. Thus, the demand for a SSN has nothing to do with protecting the public. It is about the government's hunger for wealth. It is a hunger so great that individuals must now provide a de facto national I.D. number before they can dabble in a harmless hobby in their garages on a Sunday afternoon.

The Debt Collection Improvement Act (DCIA) has nothing to do with helping people collect money. According to the official FAQ on the DCIA, "debt" is defined as "funds or property that an appropriate official of the Federal Government has determined is owed to the United States... There is no requirement that an amount be litigated or adjudicated prior to its consideration as a receivable." In short, the debts collected enrich government. The debts to be pursued are determined at the sole discretion of a bureaucrat and they include such items as student loans as well as unpaid fees for Freedom of Information Act requests.

To rake in this bonanza, government agencies now require TINs from applicants as "a condition" of receiving positive benefits, such as welfare. But TINs are also becoming a condition of granting the government permissions that are now required for the minutia of daily life. SSNs are now required for professional and occupational licenses, commercial driver's licenses (and many non-commercial ones), marriage licenses and divorce decrees, support orders, paternity determinations and death certificates. SSNs are legally necessary to pursue recreation such as hunting, fishing, or ham radio. You must submit a SSN to buy stock, open a bank account, or execute the provisions of a will. Privacy advocates who refuse to 'fill in the blank' are not merely denied government benefits. They can be denied the right to pursue a livelihood and the harmless pleasures of life, such as casting a line into a fishing hole.

Moreover, the private sector offers no refuge. Large financial institutions are legally obligated to search their records for 'delinquent debtors' and to provide the government with information about bank accounts or other holdings.

The DCIA is part of a juggernaut toward a de facto national I.D. The trend is accelerating. Two other Acts were also passed in 1996 -- the "Welfare Reform Act" and the "Illegal Immigration Reform Act." Both required applicants to provide SSNs to receive benefits. Yet the first SSN cards explicitly declared that they were not to be used for purposes of identification. Six decades later, dozens of Acts have quietly established it as a national I.D. For example, Section 1090 of the 1997 Taxpayer Relief Act requires that anyone applying for an SSN who is under 18 must provide the SSNs of his parents. If such a provision had been publicized, it might have elicited a backlash. But such measures are generally buried in the small print of ponderous documents with innocuous titles.

Since the 1960s, privacy has been lost in small, sometimes invisible steps. The first SSN card was issued in mid-November, 1936 to someone whose identity is unknown. The most visible leap toward converting SSNs into national I.D. cards came in 1961 when the IRS began to use them as taxpayer ID numbers. Ensuing measures were more subtle. They isolated and targeted specific segments of society in what has been called 'salami tactics' - that is, tactics that slice away freedom, sliver by sliver. In 1964, the Treasury Department required SSNs for the purchase of Series H savings bonds. In 1965, senior citizens needed SSNs to access Medicare. By 1970, banks and other financial institutions were required to obtain the SSNs of customers.

Privacy advocates were not silent. The Privacy Act of 1974 restricted government use of SSNs as identifiers, but agencies which were already using them were allowed to continue doing so. Other agencies seem to simply ignore the restriction. For example, the Tax Reform Act of 1976 authorized state and local tax, welfare, driver's license, or motor vehicle registration agencies to use SSNs to establish identities.

Social Security cards have evolved from a relatively obscure record-keeping aid into an I.D. that Americans must possess in order to pursue the most harmless of hobbies. Applicants under 18 have to 'turn in' the numbers of their parents in order to obtain a card that was "Not for Identification Purposes." There is a lesson here: Never trust government. Never willingly give a bureaucrat the time of day, let alone a nine-digit number that opens up your life to him.