Archive for the ‘FOIA’ Category
[Update, 1/29/2012: The Subcommittee on Social Security of the House Ways & Means Committee is meeting (February 2, 2012) and will address legislation that would restrict access to the SSDI. Read more at: Sounding a call to action to save our access to the SSDI.]
A change in Social Security Administration policy that went into effect November 1 has lead to the removal of the free online Social Security Death Index, also known as SSDI, from Rootsweb and other genealogy sites. But that’s not all. The Social Security Administration is going to remove 4 million current name records and cease reporting other data in new records. One popular fee-based data provider is going to stop displaying the Social Security number for anyone who has died in the last 10 years. This is a profound blow to genealogists and fraud investigators.
The SSA Public Death Master File aka Social Security Death Index has come under political assault as a source of Social Security numbers used to craft false identities. As Dick Eastman rightly argues in “Genealogists are Losing Access to SSDI, Mostly Due to Misinformation,” this is another case of misplaced concerns about the dissemination of personal information. The fallacy of the identity theft argument is detailed in “Are We Going to Lose the Social Security Death Index (SSDI)?”.
The background on the SSA’s explanation is cited at Steve’s Genealogy Blog, “Changes to the Public Death Master File (DMF) and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI)”.
What will be removed from the Death Master File that the SSA sells to every provider is the state verified data — which comes from the death certificate. That includes the last residence (town, county and zip code) and the location where benefits were sent. (This was confirmed in an email exchange I had with the government agency that distributes the SSA data.) How many times have you made use of that information to find beneficiaries to estates and pensions, connected separated family members, verified identity, researched a genealogy or located where a client’s family lived when a relative died? All the time.
Here’s what the Social Security Administration announced upon the release of the DVD version of the SSDI (in 2005):
The SSA Death Master File is used by leading government, financial, investigative, credit reporting, medical research and other industries to verify identity as well as to prevent fraud and comply with the USA Patriot Act.
The excitement has worn off. Fear prevails.
And there’s more. The largest genealogy data provider, Ancestry.com, announced (after political pressure was applied) that “…we have recently made a purposeful decision to not display Social Security numbers of any person that has passed away in the last 10 years.”
And more extensive restrictions are now in place for the release of information in the Social Security application — which has the parents’ names and place of birth of the applicant. Again, serious researchers will loose out.
Some free sources of the SSDI are still online but they aren’t as flexible as the Rootsweb interface and may have less data. I have links to these, other vital records at my directory of public records resources.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds “Section 8” housing, — locally administered, publicly owned housing — usually multi-unit buildings that residents can apply to live in who meet certain income, age or disability criteria.
HUD-funded multi-unit buildings are searchable by state in the HUD, Affordable Apartment Search database. A list of these is also available from the city or county housing authority and is often posted on the agency website.
Available rental units can be found in the searchable database, goSection8.com.
Housing assistance vouchers are also given to qualified recipients for rental of pre-approved privately owned residences. You’ll have to request a list of these from the city or county housing authority because they aren’t published on the agencies websites.
The types of documents kept by HUD on the construction of public housing and financing arrangements can be researched at the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Title 24.
The local housing authorities publish an administrative plan, which details the policies governing the operation of these facilities. They also have records on the private property owners who are participants in the voucher program.
The files on individuals who receive housing assistance funds or live in publicly owned buildings are maintained by the local housing authority. By law, access is limited – the recipient or their parents or guardians have explicit access – but practices may vary.
What types of housing authority records have you been able to obtain and what did you find there?
It’s not just you. The federal government has become less responsive and more stingy with FOIA requests across agencies and types of requests, according to Still Waiting
After All These Years:An in-depth analysis of FOIA performance from 1998 to 2006. The report author, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government headlines the findings:
Backlog: Two of every five requests filed in 2006 were not processed
Caseload: Requests fell for the second straight year, but the backlog still increased
Waiting Time: Long waits for information continue
Information Released: Full grants hit an all-time low
Appeals: Don’t bet on winning, the odds are against it
Costs, Efficiency: More spent on processing by fewer hands
FOIA Fees: Charges pay an insignificant part of the costs
Exemptions: Citations on the rise, particularly regarding law enforcement
Expedited Requests: No real gain for those not rejected outright
Apparently the federal government doesn’t fear its citizenry…
Privatization v. The Public’s Right To Know summarizes recent attempts by state and federal government to avoid scrutiny, wall off public records from open access and privatize government functions. Told through anecdotal stories, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press report highlights some major disadvantages to public safety and open access in the privatization of government functions. And the judiciary has often issued confusing opinions that puts the onus on the public to prove the right of access. The multi-part report also links to court cases and news accounts.
An extract from the Open Government Guide addresses each states law related to public records and nongovernmental bodies.
OpentheGovernment.org lists several new reports released by open government organizations. The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) report, Federal Controls on State Information Disclosure:FERPA, HIPAA and DPPA, addresses “barriers to state records that federal legislation erects.”
Also, go to The National Freedom of Information Coalition site for a 50 state resource guide to state public information access laws, FOI advocates, publications and form letters for public record requests. Follow the links at each state site to reach the state organizations that advocate for open records.
The Idaho Press Club, guide to Idaho Pronunciations wards off embarrassment for outsiders calling locals. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Records doesn’t have nearly the resources of other state open government sites but they provide a reference for Open Public Records Act Cases by Subject. The state page for Iowa lists the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which cites the state laws on public access to government information but also has explanatory notes. The Iowa Association of Private Investigators is among this organization’s members, setting an example that all private investigator professional groups should follow with their state Freedom of Information advocates.
The Canadian Newspaper Association posts Freedom of Information Audits on the response of federal, municipal and provincial governments to public information requests.
Federal FOIA resources include sample letters and international FOI laws.
[Note: This post was revised January 20, 2012.]