Report to Congress on Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card



This report responds to the immigration and welfare reform laws passed in 1996 that require the Commissioner of Social Security to develop a prototype of a counterfeit-resistant Social Security card and to study and report on different methods of improving the Social Security card application process. The report also includes a required evaluation of the cost and workload implications of issuing a counterfeit-resistant card to all persons over a 3-, 5-, and 10-year period, and an evaluation of the feasibility and cost implications of imposing a user fee for Social Security cards.


Originally, the Social Security number (SSN) was a way to record each person's Social Security earnings; the only purpose of the Social Security card was to provide a record of the number so that employers could accurately report earnings.

Despite its narrowly drawn purpose, use of the SSN as a general identifier in record systems eventually grew. The broad-based coverage of the Social Security program makes the SSN widely available and a convenient common data element for all types of record-keeping systems and data exchanges. The SSN has been adopted for numerous other purposes so that today it is the single most widely used record identifier for both government and the private sector, exerting a broad influence on the lives of most Americans.

The pervasive use of the SSN has led some to conclude that it is already, in effect, a national identifier, a term generally viewed negatively in the United States. There are some who believe that the public is well-served by the use of a single identifier. However, the implications of the widespread use of such an identifier on personal privacy have generated serious concern both within the government and in society in general. Recent advances in information technology; e.g., the Internet and the World Wide Web, have raised further concerns about increased opportunities for access to personal information.

The current Social Security card is made of banknote paper and serves only as an official verification of the SSN assigned by SSA to the person whose name is on the card. The card is neither proof of the bearer's identity nor citizenship/noncitizen status and has no transaction value or data storage capability. The current paper card incorporates a number of security features appropriate to a paper card format.


We developed seven card options in response to the legislative mandate:

  • Plastic card
  • Card with picture
  • Secure barcode stripe
  • Optical memory stripe
  • Magnetic stripe
  • Magnetic stripe/picture
  • Microprocessor/magnetic stripe/picture

These prototypes illustrate different combinations of security features and functionality covering the variety of card options available. The requirements for the uses of an enhanced card and the results to be achieved have yet to be specified, therefore, we did not evaluate the potential benefits or drawbacks of each option beyond security concerns. We have not recommended an option for implementation because it is beyond the scope of the study.

The legislation requires an evaluation of the implications if an enhanced Social Security card were issued to all current number holders, about 277 million people. The card issuance process would be significantly changed by adding citizenship or noncitizen status information, and for some options, adding the number holder's picture or personal biometric information to the Social Security card. This new process would make issuing cards more costly to administer and more complicated for the public.

The cost of issuing an enhanced card to 277 million number holders ranges from $3,898 million to $9,231 million, depending on the card option selected. These costs include contacting all number holders, processing costs (excluding staff overhead) to issue the new cards, the cost of the new card itself, and the cost of special equipment needed to work with each card option and/or to capture information to be included on the card. We assume that costs (other than certain initial start-up costs) would be proportionately divided for each replacement scenario, i.e., 3-, 5-, and 10-years.

There would be additional activities associated with issuing an enhanced Social Security card that have not been included in the estimates because they cannot be meaningfully estimated without knowing the specific requirements of issuing new cards to all number holders.

Due to the significant cost of issuing an enhanced Social Security card to all number holders, we looked at alternatives, for example, the drivers license or State-issued identity card for nondrivers.


We studied the feasibility of imposing a user fee for enhanced cards. SSA has historically opposed charging a fee because we believe Social Security cards are a basic part of this mandatory program. Furthermore, failure to report changes in order to avoid paying a fee would create discrepant SSA records, adding costs for SSA and the other agencies which rely on SSA data.

Charging a fee in connection with the card issuance is feasible. Because our current remittance process has low volumes, we would need a streamlined collection process for this fee. The cost of collecting fees in conjunction with the issuance of 277 million Social Security cards is $1,271 million. The full-cost fee, including card issuance and fee remittance processes, ranges from $19 to $38 per card, depending on the card option selected.

SSA's Inspector General (IG) studied Canada's Social Insurance Number fee charging operation and concluded that SSA should charge a fee of $13.00 for each card. The IG study is based on our replacement process and volumes for the current card, rather than a mass reissuance of an enhanced card. The IG also did not consider the cost of the remittance process or the changes needed to satisfy the security and integrity requirements of a mass remittance process.


Issuing enhanced cards, either prospectively or as a mass reissuance, is feasible. However, the issuance of an enhanced card raises policy issues about privacy and the potential for the card to be used as a national identification card. Any consideration of an enhanced card needs to consider these policy issues. The legislative mandate appears to contemplate a mass reissuance. However, this option is much more costly and more burdensome to the public than a prospective issuance or another alternative that does not use the Social Security card to achieve the desired results. The total costs for issuing an enhanced card and collecting a user fee range from $5,169 million to $10,502 million.

The uses and desired results to be achieved by adopting an enhanced card are yet to be specified; our analysis does not include a recommendation for an option to be implemented. The extent the public would accept an enhanced card and comply with reissuance will depend largely on the perception of the acceptable uses of the SSN and card and the tangible and intangible benefits that the new card imparts.