A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why does my old social security card say it can't be used as ID?

December 16, 1983

Dear Cecil:

My social security card says that my social security number is not to be used for identification, yet the state requires it for driver's licenses and thecity needs it for voter's registration. Do they have any federal authority to do this or did this practice just start?

Dear John:

Let's get with the program here. They didn't mean your social security number couldn't be used for identification purposes, just that the card itself couldn't be presented as proof of identity.

The reason for the warning was that prior to 1972 having a social security card didn't prove much of anything, certainly not your identity. Obtaining a card was ridiculously easy--all you had to do was stroll into any local social security office, fill out a form or two, and they'd assign you a number there and then. Some of my lowlife high school classmates took advantage of this lax procedure to obtain cards under several names.

When social security numbers were first issued in 1936, such shenanigans didn't matter much, because the only thing you were supposed to do with the number was submit it to your employer when you started a new job. In later years, however, the social security number evolved into an unofficial national identity number (although the feds hate to admit this).

In 1943 a presidential executive order directed the military and other government agencies to use the number for identification purposes, and in 1961 the Internal Revenue Service began using the number for taxpayer identification. Eventually states began requesting the number on driver's license applications and the like.

Finally in 1972 Congress realized that the government's casual card-issuance procedures were an invitation to abuse, and it decided to tighten things up. Applicants over age 18 now have to present proof of birth and proof of identity, and they also have to apply in person. Other equally stringent regulations apply to minors and aliens.

Cards and numbers are no longer issued directly at the local office, but have to be cleared through a central office in Baltimore, a process that takes about ten days. Among other things this prevents an applicant from being issued more than one number. The cards also employ a tamper-resistant printing process like that used on U.S. currency to prevent unauthorized duplication.

As a result of all these changes, the "not to be used for identification" line was dropped from the cards and a lot of places will accept them as proof of identity. You just can't call them national identity cards, or at least the feds can't, because if they do the right wing will freak.

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