According to MSNBC, thousands of U.S. citizens have wrongfully been declared dead, due to an average of 35 data input errors per day by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Many other agencies rely on the data provided by the SSA, such as the IRS. People who have been wrongfully declared dead face many problems, such as rejection of tax returns, cancellation of health insurance, and closure of bank accounts. The article states, ‘Input of an erroneous death entry can lead to benefit termination and result in financial hardship for a beneficiary.’ Apparently it is far easier to declare a person’s death than it is to correct the mistake. It continues, ‘Social Security says an erroneous death record can be removed only when it is presented with proof that the original record was entered in error. The original error must be documented, and the deletion must be approved by a supervisor after “pertinent facts supporting reinstatement” are available in the system.'”
In all, Social Security officials had to “resurrect” 23,366 people from January 2004 to September 2005. In other words, over a period of 21 months, Social Security was presented with irrefutable evidence that it had been “killing” more than 1,100 people a month, or more than 35 a day.
Garbage in, garbage out
The problem begins at the Social Security Administration, keeper of most of the records tabulating deaths in the United States. Like other government agencies, the IRS, with whom Todd has most recently tangled, relies upon Social Security’s database, said Dan Boone, a spokesman for the IRS.
When Social Security determines that an eligible current or future beneficiary has died, it closes the person’s entry in its Case Processing and Management System, or CPMS.
The system is only as good as the data it receives. Sometimes, that isn’t very good.
Todd, for example, was killed when someone in Florida died and her Social Security number was accidentally typed in. Since then, her tax returns have repeatedly been rejected, and her bank closed her credit card account.
“One time when I [was] ruled dead, they canceled my health insurance because it got that far,” she said.
Toni Anderson of Muncie, Ind., expired when someone in the government pushed the wrong button, making the records declare that it was she, not her husband, John, who died Nov. 8.
Social Security even sent this letter: “Dear Mr. Anderson, our condolences on the loss of Mrs. Anderson.”
This is just one of a huge set of issues that arise from massive government databases that are maintained by people (who make mistakes). It a reminder that the ‘massive government database in the sky that determines who is and is not ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ is or is not a person is not going really the answer to identity problems – increasing reliance on them could make things worse.
Daniel Solove makes this point that bureaucracies don’t take care of people’s information well because they are data systems full of abstractions.
Bob Blakley talks about the fact that
Privacy is not about keeping personal information secret. It’s about ensuring that people who handle personal information respect the dignity of the individuals to whom that information refers.
Killing people in government databases before they are dead is not dignified.