For almost a decade, some divisions of the Department of Agriculture published the Social Security numbers of individuals who receive federal aid in a publicly available online database of government grants. The Farm Service Agency and at least one other agency within Agriculture included the nine digit numbers as part of the tracking number assigned to each recipient of government assistance, called a Federal Award ID.
Those tracking numbers were then published in the Federal Assistance Awards Database System (FAADS), an online compendium of “all types of financial assistance awards made by federal agencies to all types of recipients,” which is updated quarterly. This database is generally used by experts and is not very user-friendly.
So far, it’s not clear whether the inadvertent publication of individuals’ Social Security numbers is limited to the two agencies in Agriculture, or whether the problem extends to other departments and agencies as well.
The government has removed Federal Award IDs from the FAADS database; however, researchers, journalists, news organizations, nonprofits and numerous others with an interest in government programs have been downloading the data for years. The government was alerted to the problem after a citizen discovered the personal information on a Web site maintained by a nonprofit group.
Marsha Bergmeier, whose family farm receives loans through a Farm Service Agency program, discovered the problem through a Google search. She came across records for her farm on FedSpending.org, a user-friendly database of government spending produced by the nonprofit watchdog group OMB Watch that includes data from FAADS. (Full disclosure: OMB Watch is a grantee of the Sunlight Foundation, which provided funding for FedSpending.org.)
On the OMB Watch site, Bergmeier found that personal information, including her farm’s tax ID number, was a part of a string of digits under the Federal Award ID column.
Bergmeier alerted OMB Watch and the Department of Agriculture, setting off a series of discussions and email exchanges among the staff of OMB Watch and officials from Agriculture and the Census Bureau, which maintains the FAADS database.
The New York Times is expected to publish a detailed story on this later today.
Thousands of individuals affected
Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, characterized the oversight as “deplorable.” He said that government officials first asked OMB Watch to pull down one record—Bergmeier’s—and later requested to remove the entire Federal Award ID field, as they suspected there could be more such cases.
Once again, it was Bergmeier who discovered the problem.
As she dug deeper into FAADS data using online searches, she found that there were more than 28,000 cases where people’s Social Security numbers were being used as the primary ID for the records. In an email she sent to OMB Watch on April 13, she wrote, “I have identified 28,209 records on your Web site that contain Social Security numbers and banking information.”
Both OMB Watch and Commerce have removed the Federal Award ID field from their Web sites.
But removing the numbers doesn’t solve all the problems that publishing the Social Security numbers caused while creating other problems. As Bass noted, the Federal Award ID, which is the unique record identification, is essential for any type of investigator making a Freedom of Information Act request—which is much harder for the government to fill without a specific transaction number. While a Census data specialist Mike Mashburn maintained that researchers can still use the information without the Federal Award ID numbers, the data cannot be mined to its fullest without this information.
“The best possible solution is for the USDA to quickly re-generate the ID numbers and resolve the problem, and this should technically take an hour,” Bass said. As of Thursday morning, government officials had yet to determine how they were going to address the problem.
Even with the Federal Award ID removed, there is no way to tell how many people may already have access to the data—including thousands of Social Security numbers. Take OMB Watch—they said they have had as many as three million searches of FedSpending.org data since the site was launched in October 2006.
“There is no way to say how many people have downloaded it or have copies of it,” Bass said. In fact, after the Census Bureau redacted the Federal Award IDs on its server earlier this week, OMB Watch did a search on Tuesday and found that the National Archives had FAADS records—still showing the IDs—on their Web site.
Besides government agencies, other private organizations such as Investigative Reporters and Editors also have this data. Since 2002, IRE has distributed this data to at least three dozen media organizations.
We have not received comment on this story from any government official in spite of numerous and repeated phone calls.
This story was first reported on Sunlight's Real Time Investigations.