Closing public access hurts researchers of all stripes

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My best friend of some 30 years has a passion for documenting her family history.

She has traveled to Canada and Europe to obtain audio interviews with elderly relatives so their memories can be preserved.

Even though her adult children have little or no interest in barely living or long-dead ancestors perched on the family tree, my friend has put her reportorial skills to extensive use for posterity.

She has combed public and private records from well-worn Bibles to the voluminous files of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

She is not alone, although she has compiled all this information practically without help.

Websites and paid services galore have taken advantage of the genealogy craze, powered still by the rocket fuel of Alex Haley’s “Roots” and its subsequent 1970s TV miniseries, along with shows that track celebrity heritage.

Now the U.S. Social Security Administration is finding out that the move it took last year to make it more difficult for citizens to gain access to death records is hurting millions more people than just amateur genealogists.

In 1980, a court ruling forced the administration to make public the Social Security Death Master File.

It contains about 90 million names of dead people reported to the government from various sources.

But last year, the agency decided not to release records sent to them by the states for fear that the public access was contributing to identity theft.

Four million names were removed from the public file last year.

They are made available only to federal agencies that need them to determine whether benefits should be paid to survivors.

This draconian reaction to an admittedly agonizing crime impedes the ability of medical researchers to do valid work.

Scientists crunching the numbers of organ transplant survivors and those trying to find cures for cancer and heart disease are stymied. They can’t get enough accurate data to put in the applications for the grant money that keeps them going.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keep records, but the Social Security database is more up to date and contains many more names provided by hospitals, nursing homes and funeral homes, as well as state and local governments.

Speed is important in gathering post-mortem information on people because many die after having moved from place to place several times. Many others die alone without friends or family even knowing they have passed away.

Researchers want to know about these deaths as soon as possible because memories fade and records get lost.

I know my best friend has a sharp intellect, but I now have more definitive proof than ever.

She started her shoe-leather search many years ago with very little money but a lot of determination.

Even if she couldn’t possibly have anticipated Social Security’s tight-fisted approach to the green-eyeshade guys and gals, she started her family history era in the analog era and has survived its transition to the digital era.

In an age when the search for personal identity is constantly being thwarted by corporate homogeneity, how many of us will be that fortunate?

Read more from:
CDC, Family, Genealogy, Gina Logue, History, Identity Theft, Journalism, Politics, Social Security, Voices
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