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Governor Signs Social Security Number Privacy Legislation

Posted: July 13, 2011|Category: Privacy

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Governor Lincoln Chafee has signed into law an ACLU bill that will close a loophole in a long-standing state law designed to protect consumers’ privacy and help reduce the problem of identity theft.  The new law bars most merchants from demanding any part of a customer’s social security number in order to complete a sale.

Almost two decades ago, the General Assembly enacted a law that was designed to prohibit this practice. The ban was enacted in recognition of the then-small-but-growing problem of identity theft, empowered by widespread, and unnecessary, demands from third parties for this private information. Since the law’s initial passage, the problem of identity theft has grown exponentially, but some merchants started evading the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Instead of asking for a customer’s entire SSN, some merchants instead demanded only the last four digits, claiming this was not prohibited.

In testimony before legislative committees last month, the ACLU pointed out that this practice eviscerated the protection that the statute was designed to provide in the first place. Robert Ellis Smith, a Providence-based national expert on privacy law, provided information showing that it is relatively easy, with a little background information, for a sophisticated criminal to figure out the first five digits of a person’s SSN; by making available the last four digits, which is the only random part of the nine-digit number, the biggest obstacle for a criminal who was intent on identity theft was eliminated.

Additionally, just knowing the last four digits by themselves creates the potential for significant invasions of privacy. Banks and other institutions that presently have a right to know your social security number often rely on the last four digits of the SSN to provide individuals access to their private information. By allowing private merchants to obtain this information, the whole point of the original law was undermined.

The passage of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy and Sen. Dominick Ruggerio, closes this loophole.  The ACLU believes that its passage is an important step towards better protecting Rhode Islanders’ privacy.

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