Monday, January 23, 2012

Death Index, Be Not Proud

It has been said (by several people, according to the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations) that nothing is certain but death and taxes. But someone has to keep track of such inevitabilities, and for death in the United States, that’s the Social Security Administration. Their ominously-named Death Master File may not be perfect (the Scripps Howard News Service investigative report Grave Mistakes estimated that more than 1,000 names per month are erroneously added), but the records are invaluable for the confirmation of birth and death dates as well as the prevention of identity theft and insurance fraud, among other purposes.

Unfortunately, the public version of the Death Master File has also been misused in some of the same activities that it was intended to prevent. The Public DMF, more commonly known as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), was created in 1980 as the result of a federal court order from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. It was made available to the public as a subscription service through a partnership with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which sells subscriptions and updates to third parties, including for free at the popular genealogy research site as well as premium legal research services like LexisNexis (Public Records > Find a Person > Social Security Death Master) and Westlaw (database short name: DEATH). Following some high-profile incidents of tax fraud using the Social Security numbers of the recently deceased, even the plaintiff in the original FOIA lawsuit has since spoken publicly about restricting access to the sensitive information contained in the SSDI.

In November 2011, the Social Security Administration amended its policies regarding access to “protected state records,” or “death records we receive through our contracts with the States.” The Death Master File FAQ on SSA's website points out that their death reports are received from a variety of sources, including “family members, funeral homes, hospitals, States, Federal agencies, postal authorities and financial institutions.” Although the change affects only the state government records, the Administration estimates that the average number of deaths disclosed in the public DMF will be cut by almost one-third going forward. In addition, the Administration plans to remove more than 4 million historic records which fall into the "protected state records" category.

In response, last month moved its formerly-free version of the SSDI behind a paywall (although initial searches and preliminary result lists are still free). Other providers (including LexisNexis and Westlaw) have also scrambled to make their users aware of the new policies. This change to the SSDI serves as a valuable reminder for researchers to always check the "scope note" for information about coverage in a particular database, since contents may change unexpectedly. On LexisNexis and Westlaw, these can be found by clicking the "i" icons next to a database name. For help deciphering database coverage, or for assistance with researching public records, be sure to Ask a Librarian.