Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Not Dead Yet


Dan Solove has an interesting article up, “Coming Back from the Dead.” [link to no longer works] It’s about people who are marked dead by the Social Security Administration and the living hell their lives become:

Dan starts with quotes from the WSMV News story, “Government Still Declares Living Woman Dead” [link to no longer works]

According to government paperwork, Laura Todd has been dead off and on for eight years, and Todd said there’s no end to the complications the situation creates.

According to a government audit, Social Security had to resurrect more than 23,000 people in a period of less than two years. The number is the approximate equivalent to the population of Brentwood.

Illinois resident Jay Liebenow was also declared dead. He said Todd is now more vulnerable to identity theft because after someone dies, Social Security releases that person’s personal information on computer discs. He said the information is sold to anyone who wants it, like the Web site

Responsibility should be placed on every entity that maintains records to ensure that information is correct and that errors are promptly fixed. Moreover, when information is shared with others, the one sharing the information should have duties to inform the others of the error; and those receiving the data should have a duty to check for corrections in the data from the source.

I’d propose a different solution: libel law. These organizations are making false and defamatory statements about people. They should be held accountable, under existing law.

I’ve been discussing libel and the credit agencies for years, in posts like “Because That’s Where The Money is: Ethan Leib’s ID Theft” or “ Government Issued Data and Privacy Law.” I’ve yet to hear why libel law isn’t a reasonable and easy approach to the problem. As Nick Szabo comments in “The Discovery of Law,” “common law is a painstaking way of discovering and making better law, case by case, dispute by dispute, piece of evidence by piece of evidence.”” I’m not calling for a broad overhaul. I think that a common law approach to libel law would likely address many of our issues with the way data flows between organizations.

4 comments on "Not Dead Yet"

  • tim says:

    These organizations are making false and defamatory statements about people.

    How exactly are libel laws supposed to work when its the government who screws up? I can (sortof) make that stretch when it comes to private organizations.

  • Doc Daneeka says:

    False, yes; harmful, yes; but how is the “is dead” statement defamatory? Surely there are plenty of people better behaved not that they’re dead.

  • Adam says:

    I’m not a lawyer, but I understand that people sue the government all the time, asking it to alter harmful behavior, and pay damages. I understand that the government might claim sovereign immunity, but given the commitments to accuracy in the Privacy act of 1974, I’m not sure I can wave my hands any further. 😉
    The key element of defamation is damage to reputation. Reputation is both personal and commercial. In this instance, people’s ability to enjoy their good name for commercial purposes is damaged. One can argue that after someone has proved their liveness once, the entity who saw that proof had good reason to know that they were alive, and was thus knowingly spreading false statements.

  • Adam says:

    I should be clear–I understand that this is what lawyers refer to as “a novel theory,” in much the same way cryptographers refer to “new cryptosystem.”
    Nevertheless, I’m interested in knowing if it could work.

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