TN 3 (11-98)

GN 03301.004 Development of Policy on Confidentiality and Disclosure

A. Preview

The purpose of this subchapter is to give you background material about SSA's disclosure policy, an overview of the applicable laws and some general rules for processing requests for information. You will need to refer to other subchapters (or to references other than POMS) to learn how to respond to specific types of requests for information.

1. What is Covered in Other Subchapters

Other subchapters in this chapter (GN 03300.000) deal with specific disclosure issues.

For questions about...
See...

NOTE: Also see GN 03316.140 regarding ad hoc disclosures.

2. What Is Covered In Other Sources

This chart shows what different components should do to get information about situations not specifically covered in POMS.

WHEN...THEN...

A component receives a request for parts of POMS, administrative records or other non-personal information

The component refers to:

  • The Index of Administrative Staff Manuals and Instructions, or

  • AIMS GAM Chapter 14, Instructions Nos. 13 and 14

A component receives a request for personal information about an SSA employee

  • A FO or TSC contacts its RO Personnel Office.

  • A CO component contacts the Personnel Data Section (in Room L-1114, West Low Rise).

A FO or TSC has a situation not covered in this chapter, or needs an interpretation of these instructions.

The office consults its Regional FOIA/PA coordinator.

A Regional FOIA/PA coordinator needs further help with a particular situation.

The coordinator phones the Office of Disclosure Policy

B. Background

1. Disclosure Rules - 1937, 1939

In 1937 the original Social Security Board established Regulation No. 1. This simple document guaranteed the confidentiality and privacy of all records compiled by the Board. The regulation was needed to ensure the confidentiality of records furnished by employees, employers and others so that these sources of information would not be reluctant to submit complete and accurate information.

In 1939 Section 1106 of the Social Security Act was enacted. It became the statutory basis for maintaining the confidentiality of SSA records.

2. Freedom of Information Act - 1966, 1974, and EFOIA - 1996

In 1966, in response to the public's desire to know more about what government was doing and why, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (P.L. 93-502), opening the workings of government to the public eye.

In 1974, substantial amendments to the FOIA affected our policies on what administrative and instructional material must be released to the public upon request, as well as personal information if it did not constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's personal privacy.

In 1996, P.L. 104-231, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (EFOIA) Amendments, amended the FOIA to provide for public access to government information electronically or in other formats as requested.

3. Privacy Act - 1974, Computer Matching - 1988

a. Privacy Act - 1974

Because of an equally important concern about the privacy of individuals whose data were housed in ever-expanding records systems, the Privacy Act (P.L. 93-579) was passed in 1974. It provided the public some relief from the more invasive aspects of government recordkeeping by:

  • Providing Federal agencies with rules for collecting and maintaining data, and

  • Giving public notice of what information is in its systems of records.

At the same time, individuals were granted certain rights in order to give them a degree of control over what records a Federal agency collected about them.

b. Computer Matching - 1988

The CMPPA was an amendment to the PA to compare records for the purpose of:

  • establishing or verifying eligibility for a Federal benefit program, or

  • recouping payments or delinquent debts under such programs.

Computer matching is considered an effective weapon against fraud and abuse in government assistance programs. However, to ensure that Federal agencies use matching appropriately, the Computer Matching Act was passed in 1988. It requires agencies to give notice before taking action based on a match.

4. Internal Revenue Code (IRC), as Amended by the Tax Reform Act of 1976

The Internal Revenue Code (IRC), as amended by the Tax Reform Act of 1976, added section 6103 which affected SSA's use of and disclosure of wage and self-employment income. These data are tax return information and can be used and disclosed, or as authorized by Section 6103 of the IRC by SSA only to administer the parts of the Social Security Act for which SSA has responsibility. Disclosure of tax return data for other purposes is prohibited unless specifically permitted under the Internal Revenue Code or other statutes, or otherwise authorized by the Secretary of the Treasury or the Commissioner of IRS.

5. Government in the Sunshine Act - 1977

The Government in the Sunshine Act, effective in 1977, amended the FOIA so that information could not be withheld from the public on the basis of a statute unless the statute is specific about what must be withheld or leaves no discretion on the issue. Thus section 1106(a) of the Social Security Act no longer qualified as a statute under Exemption 3 of the FOIA that could be cited as a legal basis for denying requests for information when the FOIA applied.

This shifted SSA's reliance for restricting disclosure from section 1106(a) to the FOIA, under which everything must be disclosed, with exceptions. The burden was placed on SSA to justify withholding, rather than on the requester to justify disclosure.

6. Reporters Committee Decision - 1989

In 1989, a U.S. Supreme Court decision, U.S. Department of Justice vs. Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press (Reporters Committee decision), significantly affected SSA's policies on disclosing personal information under the FOIA. The decision limits disclosure of personal information about living individuals under the FOIA to those instances where:

  • disclosure would inform the general public as to how a Federal agency performs its statutory duties, and

  • this public interest outweighs the individual's right to privacy.

C. References

List of the Federal statutes which affect SSA disclosure rules, GN 03301.099 (Exh. 1)


To Link to this section - Use this URL:
http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0203301004
GN 03301.004 - Development of Policy on Confidentiality and Disclosure - 05/10/2006
Batch run: 01/27/2009
Rev:05/10/2006