Report to Congress on Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card



The study suggests that issuing a new, enhanced card would be costly to implement. There may be other less costly approaches to achieve the same results as issuing an enhanced Social Security card. Under any proposal that requires a Social Security card to serve as proof of identity and citizenship or lawful noncitizen status for work eligibility, every current card holder (277 million) would have to provide such evidence before a new card could be issued and that would be a burden on the public.

If an enhanced card does not have to serve as proof of citizenship/noncitizen status, there are possible issuance process alternatives.


Many people in the U.S. believe the drivers license, or identification card issued by a State motor vehicle agency, is a de facto identity card. By using these documents to accomplish specific objectives, expanding Social Security card uses may proceed at a slower pace than might be needed to justify a new nationally issued card. The licenses and identity cards are not subject to the issuance restrictions that apply to the Social Security card. In addition, licenses and identification cards in many States are being enhanced to include some of the data storage and other enhancements discussed earlier in this report.

In addition to a photograph of the driver, State drivers licenses show a wide variety of other identifying information, such as weight, height, age, color of eyes, hair, etc. Currently all States include a picture, and 41 States capture the photograph digitally. Digital photographs may be transmitted electronically for verification. Moreover, drivers licenses generally must be renewed every 4 years, so the photograph and identifying information are updated periodically. Each State also furnishes photo-identification cards for nondrivers who need an official form of identification. As noted in this report, the need for an identity document and for a means of validating the SSN in order to access and use data has encouraged development of a single document that can meet both needs.

Use of the SSN in State drivers license systems is already authorized by Federal law, and 29 States currently use the SSN as the drivers license number or show it on the license. The 1996 immigration reform provision on improved identification-related documents requires the SSN to be included on State drivers licenses by the year 2000. Thus, the drivers license and Social Security card can both be used to verify the SSN.

It would also be possible for SSA to validate SSNs for new State drivers licenses on a completely automated basis. Drivers licensing officials in the States currently query about 75,000 times daily, via computer terminals, the National Drivers Register data base of people whose licenses have been revoked, suspended, or denied to identify problem applicants for licenses. A similar query system to validate SSNs would be possible.

There are several advantages of placing verified SSNs on drivers licenses. Most people already have a license and those who do not drive can obtain a photo-identification card. Both documents contain the types of identification features that would be needed on a new Social Security card if it were to be used as an identity or work eligibility document. Also, drivers licensing is paid for by an existing system for collecting user fees; there would be no new large cost either for users or taxpayers. Equally important, there would be no additional burden of reissuance or sense of Government intrusion for the public. Extending the SSN verification document to State drivers licenses would assure that each State may decide on services needed while allowing a national objective to be achieved. The States would have to be willing to participate with SSA in verifying SSNs and coding the drivers license of a noncitizen who is not authorized to work.

Placing additional data on drivers licenses also has a variety of disadvantages. Placing citizenship status information on drivers licenses could require some applicants to coordinate with three agencies (SSA, INS, and the State department of motor vehicles). This could be the case, for example, for an immigrant whose immigration status is fluid. In addition, a Federal requirement on States to change drivers license requirements could be viewed as an unfunded Federal mandate.


Another alternative to using the Social Security card for a work eligibility card is a "no card" option. Under this option, each person is assigned an SSN and receives a document which has no value other than to record the number assigned. Today, the Social Security card is used infrequently for Social Security business; there is no mandate that the card be carried nor is it required to be presented when taking a new job. Adopting a "no card" option would continue current practices and avoid the cost and inconvenience of issuing new Social Security cards.

Since the key identifier is the SSN, rather than the Social Security card, matching the number to other authentication means could virtually eliminate counterfeit Social Security card issues. Several concepts of matching who you are (biometric), or what you know (PIN), or what you have (encryption software and keys) to a specific identifier are emerging.

While an analysis of these options is beyond the scope of this report, such options present a wide range of possible applications that could meet future requirements and offer solutions that span some limitations of card uses.