Uncle Sam Has All Your NumbersBy Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 1999; Page A1
As part of a new and aggressive effort to track down parents who owe child support, the federal government has created a vast computerized data-monitoring system that includes all individuals with new jobs and the names, addresses, Social Security numbers and wages of nearly every working adult in the United States.
Government agencies have long gathered personal information for specific reasons, such as collecting taxes. But never before have federal officials had the legal authority and technological ability to locate so many Americans found to be delinquent parents – or such potential to keep tabs on Americans accused of nothing.
The system was established under a little-known part of the law overhauling welfare three years ago. It calls for all employers to quickly file reports on every person they hire and, quarterly, the wages of every worker. States regularly must report all people seeking unemployment benefits and all child-support cases.
Starting next month, the system will reach further. Large banks and other financial institutions will be obligated to search for data about delinquent parents by name on behalf of the government, providing authorities with details about bank accounts, money-market mutual funds and other holdings of those parents. State officials, meanwhile, have sharply expanded the use of Social Security numbers. Congress ordered the officials to obtain the nine-digit numbers when issuing licenses – such as drivers', doctors' and outdoorsmen's – in order to revoke the licenses of delinquents.
Enforcement officials say the coupling of computer technology with details about individuals' employment and financial holdings will give them an unparalleled ability to identify and locate parents who owe child support and, when necessary, withhold money from their paychecks or freeze their financial assets.
"They never get away from us anymore. It's just wonderful. . . . What you're trying to do in child support is build a box, four walls, around a person," said Brian Shea, the acting executive director of child-support enforcement in Maryland. "It has in some ways revolutionized this business."
But privacy experts and civil libertarians say the scope of the effort raises new questions about the proper line between aggressive public policy and intrusive government snooping. In pursuing an objective that is almost universally applauded, the government has also created something that many Americans have staunchly opposed: a vast pool of fresh personal information that could be used in a variety of ways to monitor their lives.
"What you have here is a compilation of information that is much better and more current than any other data system in the U.S.," said Robert Gellman, a lawyer and privacy specialist in the District. "All of the sudden we're on the verge of creating the Holy Grail of data collection, a central file on every American."
Already lawmakers, federal agencies and the White House have considered expanding the permitted aims of the system to include cutting down on fraud by government contractors, improving the efficiency of the government and pinpointing debtors, such as students who default on government loans.
Under the system, every employer must send information about new hires and quarterly wages to state child-support agencies. State officials gather the data, along with information on unemployment benefits and child-support cases, and then ship it to computers run by the Administration for Children and Families. ACF officials then use computers to sort and send back to state authorities reports about people obligated to pay child support.
Government officials say the system is safe, accurate and discreet. They also say it is secure. Because it has, among other safeguards, systems that confirm the accuracy of Social Security numbers, officials say it will not intrude into the lives of most people.
An examination of the program, however, shows that government officials have downplayed or overlooked a variety of privacy and security concerns as they worked to meet congressional deadlines.
The computer system that houses much of the data at the Social Security Administration "has known weaknesses in the security of its information systems," according to a Dec. 31 report by the General Accounting Office. And authorities have not studied the frequency of mistakes that might arise from incorrect data, even though the system will enable local child-support enforcement officials to routinely freeze a parent's assets without an additional court hearing.
Few people know about the system, even though it was created through one of the signature acts of Congress and the Clinton administration – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the law that ended the federal guarantee of welfare payments. Much of the congressional debate and news coverage at the time focused on the broad policy and political implications of the new law.
Officials have not publicized their ability to obtain financial information because they do not want to alert delinquents to the ability of enforcement workers to seize or freeze financial assets, according to Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families, which administers the program.
"We're setting aside some of the courtesies in order to accomplish what we're trying to do," said Kharfen, who described the network as an "unprecedented, vast amount of information that is updated constantly."
He added: "This is about getting financial support to the kids."
A Boost for Some
When welfare reformers on Capitol Hill and the White House approved the system in 1996, their aim was to cut down welfare spending by boosting child-support payments.
They had in mind people such as Stephanie Dudley and her son Robert, who live in Farmington, Minn. Robert's father had split up with Dudley shortly after the boy was born and drifted from place to place. He owed $350 a month in child-support payments, but it was hard tracking him down and getting him to pay.
Officials found Robert's father – and then started withholding money from his paycheck – after a new employer in Pennsylvania reported him to the network. "I literally was living from check to check," Dudley said. "I mean, that money literally put shoes on the kid's feet, helped pay the rent."
Kathy Robins of Tazewell, Va., and her 7-year-old son, Dwight, never received court-ordered child support until the system turned up his father in North Carolina. Now she gets about $120 a month, money she plans to use to pay for a babysitter this summer. "It'll help," she said. "I mean, it's better than I was getting before, which was nothing."
Child-support advocates contend that fears about privacy are overblown when weighed against such successes.
As of 1997, the latest year for which figures available, more than 7.4 million delinquents owed more than $43 billion in past child support. The system has helped boost support payments from $12 billion in 1996 to $14.4 billion last year, officials said. And in 1997, the burgeoning system helped enforcement programs locate more than 1.2 million delinquents.
The system is essentially an electronic dragnet. It collects the names, Social Security numbers and other data about every newly hired employee in the nation from employers, who also must provide pay reports for most wage-earning adults. States ship along the names and other identifying information of people who receive state unemployment insurance.
The Administration for Children and Families, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, serves as a sort of clearinghouse that automatically matches all of that information against a file of nearly 12 million child support cases to locate parents obligated to pay support.
Then the agency provides information about those parents – no matter whether they are behind on payments – to the appropriate state enforcement workers. The idea is to track the parents across state lines.
Supporters of the system note that Congress explicitly restricted access to it. Those authorized to use the information include the Social Security Administration, which can use the directory of new hires to verify unemployment reports; the Treasury Department, which can use it to cross-reference tax-deduction claims; and researchers, who gain access only to anonymous data.
Next month, financial institutions that operate in multiple states – such as Crestar Financial Corp., Charles Schwab & Co. and the State Department Federal Credit Union – will begin comparing a list of more than 3 million known delinquents against their customer accounts. Under federal law, the institutions are obligated to return the names, Social Security numbers and account details of delinquents they turn up.
The Administration for Children and Families will then forward that financial information to the appropriate states. For security reasons, spokesman Kharfen said, the agency will not mix the financial data with information about new hires, wages and the like. Bank account information will be deleted after 90 days.
In a test run this spring, Wells Fargo & Co. identified 72,000 customers whom states have identified as delinquents. NationsBank Corp. found 74,000 alleged delinquents in its test.
Later this year, smaller companies that operate only in one state will be asked to perform a similar service. Officials say most of these institutions will compare their files against the government's. But some operations that don't have enough computing power – such as small local banks, credit unions and securities firms – will hand over lists of customers to state officials for inspection. States can then administratively freeze the accounts.
In California, more than 100 financial institutions have already handed over lists of all their depositors to state officials, including names, Social Security numbers and account balances, a state official said.
"This is a major leap forward," said Nathaniel L. "Nick" Young Jr., director of child-support enforcement in Virginia, who estimates that more than 200,000 Virginia parents owe up to $1.6 billion in past support. "We are now into the electronic age."
A New Standard
Civil liberties activists say it would be a mistake to consider the system solely in terms of finding bad parents and making them pay up. They worry that the network – a massive expansion of earlier child-support efforts – sets a new standard for data surveillance by using computers to cross-reference hundreds of millions of personal records about Americans.
Over the past quarter-century, since the Privacy Act was enacted in 1974, the federal government has tried to place limits on how its officials could compare databases to find or profile people. And in general, the government was supposed to limit data collection about people who paid taxes, received a federal benefit, served in the military or tangled with the judicial system.
Critics say this new effort leaps beyond those practices by systematically creating centralized files about workers, wages and families, and sifting through those files to find a relatively small number of suspected deadbeats.
The new registry of child-support cases, for example, now requires the names of all parents and children involved, even if they do not receive public assistance or ask for help in getting a problem resolved. The registry has information about nearly 12 million families.
There is also concern about the government's reliance on private employers and financial institutions to watch citizens. A proposal last year to require banks to routinely track customer transactions for signs of criminal activity prompted an outpouring of protest. Regulators ditched the plan, called Know Your Customer, this spring after acknowledging they had misstepped.
Critics say this system in essence asks banks and other financial companies to do the same thing. "It really starts to blur that line between the government and the private sector," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy and civil liberties advocacy group in the District.
A review of the swift development of the system has turned up still other questions about whether the government paid enough attention to privacy – particularly at a time when the issue has become a flash point in public policy debates across the country.
As the system was phased in, officials posted federally required notices only in the Federal Register. No additional information has been added to W-4 forms that people must fill out when taking a new job.
Linda Ricci, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, defended the approach. She said people received notice when the program was publicly debated by Congress before its approval in 1996. She said existing language on the W-4 forms "makes clear the data will be shared with law enforcement for a variety of purposes."
In addition to the issues raised by the GAO about the security of computer systems gathering and transmitting personal information, the systems in about a dozen states also have not been certified by federal officials as meeting security and privacy guidelines.
But government officials say they are confident the security is adequate. Ricci noted that the GAO based its report on a private audit conducted at the request of the Social Security Administration. It found no security breaches, she said, and the agency has taken many steps to address concerns.
Officials in OMB and the Administration for Children and Families sought to allay fears about mistakes. While acknowledging they have no idea about the likely rate of errors because no study was conducted, officials said the program verifies the accuracy of any Social Security numbers before sending data along to the states.
In addition, officials said, individuals in every state will have an opportunity to appeal administrative actions. Virginia, for instance, will give parents up to 10 days before seizing assets, a state official said.
Critics wonder what might happen to someone who is away on vacation or business. "A Social Security number is not a bullet-proof identifier. There are always going to be mistakes," said Mary J. Culnan, a business professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, who drew an analogy to problems with the accuracy of credit reports in the early 1990s.
Finally, the operation appears to be at odds with the Clinton administration's recent push to make privacy a priority. Last month, Clinton called on banks and other financial institutions to give consumers more control over how their information is gathered and used. "President Clinton believes that consumers deserve notice and choice about the use of their personal information," said a White House memo about the event.
Ricci said the administration distinguishes between data collection efforts by government for issues such as child support and those of business. "There's no opting out for law enforcement. Individuals don't have an option about paying taxes or court-ordered child support," she said. "That's just the law."
The assurances of such officials do little to assuage the fears of people who worry about the potential ills of having a government that closely monitors its citizens.
Taylor Burke, vice president of Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Co. in Alexandria, said he doesn't believe banks should be asked to watch their customers so closely on behalf of the government. "We're all good citizens. But it doesn't mean we spy on our neighbors," Burke said. "It's really scary."
Such anxieties have been underscored by mistakes child-support enforcement workers have made in recent years. Last year, officials in Virginia had to apologize to 2,300 parents for misidentifying them as delinquent and announcing they would lose their hunting and fishing licenses. Officials attributed the mistake to a computer programming error. "We're not perfect," a state official said at the time.
California officials also misidentified hundreds of men after it began the federally mandated, data-driven crackdown on deadbeats. In some cases, they confused men who had similar names.
"In my estimation, this is going to be nothing more than a huge invasion of privacy," said James Dean of Oshkosh, Wis., who was unable to get a fishing license because he refused to provide his Social Security number.
Connie White, the system-development manager for the Virginia division of Child Support Enforcement, said she understands such qualms. But she believes the system is ultimately in the best interests of society. "I have problems with the Big Brother concept myself," White said. "But the need for people to support their children far outweighs their need for privacy."
Wade Horn, a former official in the Administration for Children and Families, agrees about the need to improve child support. But he is far from certain about the right balance between government action and individual privacy.
"What we're now going to do is put a system into place that will track the earnings and comings and goings of the entire adult population of the U.S.," said Horn, head of a fathers' rights group in Maryland. "In a free society, we should always be on the lookout for the possibility we do harm through good intentions."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company