Don’t Fear Government Malice, Fear Its Incompetence

A reader writes:

A little real-life experience to put the whole NSA controversy in context:

Back in the 1970s when I was 12 years old, my parents took me down to the local Social Security Administration building to sign me up, figuring that soon I might need an SSN for ID purposes at some point. A nice lady typed up my card – on a typewriter, of course– and after about 15 minutes I walked out with an SSN of my very own, number ABC-XX-XXXX. The card stayed in a desk drawer until high school, when I got my first job for minimum-wage at the local library and entered the world of payroll taxes and FICA like any other adult.

A few months later, we received a letter from the IRS saying that I owed $8,000 in back taxes. My parents contacted the IRS, who thought I was a middle-aged U.S. male citizen living in Brazil, not a high school girl reshelving Young Adult Fiction. My father went down to the IRS with a copy of their letter, my SSN card, and my birth certificate.

What happened was that I was issued SSN number ADC-XX-XXXX and the nice lady typed ABC-XX-XXXX on my card by mistake.

ABC was the tax scofflaw in Brazil, and as soon as I was ushered into the tax system with my first job, I got dinged with his fine. They issued me a new card with my real SSN on it and off I went.

This is the thing: That mistake resulted in a file folder of official correspondence between my father, the IRS, and the SSA which now sits in my home office (and has been scanned and uploaded to my back-up in the cloud). I have been carrying this info around, from my parents’ home to first apartment and every move after that, for over thirty years. Because I do not trust that this mistake has been put to rest and that it won’t come back to haunt me at some point. And this is a benign error from hitting the wrong key on an IBM Selectric – not the NSA or the TSA getting me mixed up with whatever the American, 21st century version of the Baader-Meinhoff gang will be!

I’m not overly concerned that our government will abuse the info they’re collecting (for the moment at least). As a previous commenters said about people finding themselves on no-fly lists accidentally, I’m extremely concerned that our government will confuse the info of the innocent with that of the guilty. And the innocent will have no recourse.