Thursday, September 17, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Collecting Social Security Numbers (9/17/15)

Question: Should cities or city libraries collect Social Security numbers? 

Answer: There may be authority and good reasons for a city to collect social security numbers (SSNs). But there are also questions to ask before a city or related entity decides to move forward. If your city is already doing this or is thinking about it, read on.

At the outset, note that SSNs are classified as private data under state data practices law.

Do cities have the authority to do this? According to state law only if it is needed for the programs authorized by the state legislature, the city council, federal law or rule. If your city is collecting SSNs for convenience, say maybe to help patrons check out a library book should they forget their library card, the authority to do that is questionable.

Some other things you'll want to think about:

Tennessen warnings
Does your city provide the required warnings? Because SSNs are private data on individual people, a city or related entity must provide a Tennessen warning when they ask a person to provide their SSN. That means a city must inform people, preferably in writing, what the city will use the SSN for and more. In some situations, a person may refuse to provide their SSN and still receive the city service at issue. So is it worth it to ask for it?

Does your city have secure storage of SSNs? State data practices law enacted in 2015 requires that cities control who in the city has access to private data, including SSNs. The law also makes it a possible breach of security if a person affiliated with a city improperly accesses or discloses an SSN and compromises the security of that data. If a breach occurs, cities must let the people affected know about the breach, investigate the breach and create a comprehensive report about it.

State law also bars cities from openly displaying an SSN on mail that is sent out by the city. That's a no-brainer, right?

Based on all of the above, check with the city attorney before doing so. If you city currently collects SSNs, work with the city attorney to review the practice to make sure collection and storage of them is in tune with current law.

One last note: cities may collect part of an SSN with a few less complications. See Partial Social Security on the Minnesota Information and Policy Division’s website.

Written by Jeanette Behr, research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1228.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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