A Public Death: Digital Records Could Combat Identity Theft
To make this happen, the federal government has been trying to persuade all states to digitize their birth and death records and add them to the Electronic Death Registration System or the Electronic Verification of Vital Events System (EVVE). But a tiny minority of states is preventing the creation of this network. Alice Lipowicz writes at Federal Computer Week:
The goal of electronic death reporting and records verification for deceased individuals is to have a more accurate and seamless collection and distribution of vital records throughout the nation, ideally with participation by all 50 states. Without greater integrity in the states' and nation's vital records systems, those records will continue to be vulnerable to use for fraud and identity theft, experts said at the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security hearing.
One of those experts was Patricia W. Potrzebowski from the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems. Last week, she told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security last week that EVVE would give government agencies "a single interface to quickly, reliably, and securely validate birth and death information at any vital records jurisdiction in the country, circumventing the need for a national database of such information."
Creating a network instead of pooling all the data in one spot would seem to appeal to politicians who like to push for more local control and less federal intrusion. It also adds another layer of protection, Potrzebowski said:
In addition, EVVE has the capability to flag individuals who are deceased, eliminating a key loophole whereby thieves use a valid birth certificate of a deceased individual to create a new identity.
But seven states are preventing this vital records network from being fully functional: Alaska, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The road blocks are technical and financial – not ideological, thankfully. The main hurdle seems to be a lack of money and administrative will at the state level to fully digitize birth and death records going back to the 1940s. As anyone who has worked with data knows, this is not as simple as just stacking death certificates on a copy machine and hitting a button. In order for the data to be useful, it needs to be fully searchable and also completely accurate. Dropping one letter in a person's name can turn a "Smith" into a "Mith" and render the record useless for fighting fraud or any other endeavor.
But if big states like California and small states like Rhode Island have managed to join the network, then it's probably time for the federal government and for voters in the seven laggard states to start applying some pressure.
Antidote is not entirely convinced that identity theft is the national menace that we often see portrayed in the media, but there's no doubt that victims of identity theft can spend years trying to undo the damage. People living in the seven states currently outside the network have a higher exposure to identity theft. These states' systems also weaken the protections that residents in the other 43 states have. Nearly 1 out of every 5 people in the US lives in one of those seven states. No network can function properly with such a large percentage of the population absent.
And how about this for a beautiful idea? While these states are making their death certificates searchable, they should also make them public. As Antidote has explained before, different states – and different counties within states – have different rules about who can see and copy a death certificate. Restrictions on access to death certificates can prevent journalists from reporting on areas of vital public interest, such as medical errors, patient safety, painkiller abuse and infectious diseases.
Alaska, New York, Tennessee and Virginia prevent all but a limited group of people (family members and lawyers mainly) from getting copies of death certificates. In Massachusetts, North Carolina and Wisconsin death certificates are public records.
As writers, we can help explain what's being done to eliminate that threat of identity theft and, hopefully, open access to important reporting tools in the process.
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Photo credit: Don Hankins via Flickr