Social Insurance Number

Almost every Canadian who pays money to, or receives benefits from, the federal government has a 9-digit Social Insurance Number (SIN).

Social Insurance Number

Almost every Canadian who pays money to, or receives benefits from, the federal government has a 9-digit Social Insurance Number (SIN). The numbers are used in addition to names and addresses so that computers may more easily keep unique records of certain transactions between Canadians and their federal and provincial governments.

The Unemployment Insurance Commission (UIC) invented the SIN in 1964. The UIC, created under the Unemployment Insurance Act (1940), began in 1942 to issue numbered cards to both insured and uninsured persons. Twenty years later the UIC master index contained information on 7.5 million persons holding UIC cards. However, a new numbering system was needed to promote accuracy in computer processing of data and because adequate combinations of numbers and letters could no longer be generated under the old numbering system. Two additional factors contributed to the adoption of the SIN. In 1962 the report of the Royal Commission on GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION (the Glassco Commission) concluded that a unique personal identifier was necessary to increase administrative efficiency in federal government services as large computers came into widespread use. In 1963, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) was proposed. About 80% of those who would be covered by the pension plan were already registered with the UIC. Thus, it seemed logical that a single number should be used for both purposes.

Although the use of SINs is a source of continuing political controversy, Parliament has never been given the opportunity to vote on the issue. The regulations governing the issuance of SINs were authorized by an order-in-council and took effect in April 1964. Employers were required at the time to ensure that their employees and any employees subsequently hired had SINs. By June 1964, 6.3 million SINs had been issued. Since its inception, more than 25 million numbers have been issued; virtually every adult residing in Canada, and many children, have a SIN.

The use of the SIN was initially restricted in practice to the UIC and CPP. Anyone with insurable employment or anyone over the age of 18 and making CPP contributions was required to obtain a number. But since there were no restrictions placed on further uses of the SIN, it gradually came into service as a unique personal identifier in all sectors of society and is now used, for example, on income tax returns, family allowances, school records and even on permits for wheat farming. Anyone filing an income tax return must provide a SIN on the return. Similarly a parent applying for a family allowance must furnish his or her SIN. Basically, most financial and service program transactions between governments and Canadian citizens are controlled by means of a SIN.

It seems reasonable to suggest that at least nongovernmental use of the SIN is improper, though it is not illegal. It is arguable that to request a SIN as identification to cash a cheque is an example of abuse. Similar examples of abuse include requiring a SIN to obtain a telephone or burial permit or to rent an apartment. In addition, both provincial and municipal governments use SINs to establish and record the identity of individuals involved in their programs. A person choosing not to furnish their SIN on demand risks denial of services.

Another aspect of abuse of SINs involves data linkage or record matching. If all interactions with the federal government are recorded using an individual's SIN, then checking government data banks for information associated with that number can reveal all available information on that person, such as whether a family allowance was declared on an income tax return. Clearly, it is useful to have controlled access to such information. On the other hand, indiscriminate use of this technique is obviously an invasion of PRIVACY, and many people fear that personal information in government data banks can and will be used for social control. The federal Privacy Act (1982) is silent on the uses of SINs, even though these numbers are the most frequent source of complaint to the federal privacy commissioner.

Abuse of the SIN is less likely to occur if those with a number make sure that they only use the number when they are required to do so by law. Moreover, the use of SINs may decline as sophisticated new computers become able to identify persons and link their records without relying on such numbers.