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Release of social security numbers may be violation of Privacy Act

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    NMU         VIRGINIA         Freedom of Information         Nov 23, 1999    

Release of social security numbers may be violation of Privacy Act

  • Despite the general openness of black lung claim proceedings, a federal magistrate judge concluded that release of the social security numbers of black lung benefit claimants by the Department of Labor violated the Privacy Act.

A federal magistrate judge in Big Stone Gap, Va., found that the U.S. Department of Labor violated the Privacy Act when it released the social security numbers of claimants for federal black lung benefits.

Magistrate Pamela Meade Sargent, who made the finding in a recommendation for a ruling by a federal District Court, said the department violated the law even though black lung claim proceedings are public by law and the department had given claimants notice that the materials they filed, except for certain financial records, would be public.

However, the magistrate said that only the claimant identified as “Buck Doe” could receive damages because none of the others had identified any damages — emotional or otherwise — for which they could be compensated.

Doe had told the court, “I believe my privacy has been violated in a way that words cannot describe. . . . It has torn me all to pieces to realize that my social security number has been distributed. . . . I feel that no amount of money could compensate me for the worry and fear of not knowing when someone would use my name and social security number.”

Sargent rejected Labor Department attorneys’ arguments that the Privacy Act should not have applied because the agency published a notice of routine uses for information it collected from the claimants.

Sargent chastised the department for releasing social security numbers, noting that Congress specifically recognized the dangers of their widespread dissemination when it enacted the Privacy Act.

(Doe v. Herman; Government counsel: John Corcoran, Roanoke, Va.)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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