Due to some flaw in my personality I love thinking about where my data goes after I fill out a form. Friends who work for giant banks describe projects that take years—endless regulatory documents, huge meetings, all to move a few on-screen pixels around. It can take 18 months to change a couple of text boxes. Why? What bureaucracy forces that slow pace? I like to imagine the flow of paperwork through the world, even if there’s no paper to consider.
This happens to me every few months, the desire to just grab and hold on to and explore a large database. I’ll download the text on Wikipedia, for example, and mess around with it. I might erase it to save space later. I’ll go fetch a few thousand public domain books and make a list of word frequencies, or get a list of millions of songs. I don’t have a motive; some idea just tugs at my shirttails, and, well, why not? It’s only a few hours of a lifetime, and perhaps I’ll discover something new. Databases are interesting to read and explore. They’re one of the things that makes the web the web.
Which explains how I found myself in possession of the names of more than 85 million dead Americans—the Social Security Death Master File. I’d asked on Twitter for interesting databases, and someone told me: Check this one out! It’s full of corpses! But after I had a copy, I realized that it’s a strange thing to be in possession of a massive list of dead people. It turns out that not just anyone is supposed to download the government’s book of death; you must undergo a certification by the National Technical Information Service, to demonstrate a legitimate reason to use the data, plus pay $1,825 for an entry-level subscription to access it. Restrictions on use and security were added to the federal budget for 2014. Its customers are banks and other organizations that want to track data about dead people to protect their interests and avoid fraud. The data also shows up on genealogy web sites while other companies resell access as a service.
Social Security numbers were first issued in 1936, to track people through the Social Security system—payment of benefits, and so forth. Getting a Social Security card became a ritual of American life. I remember going to some blank office, aged eleven, and signing with pomp, because how often do eleven-year-olds get to sign anything official?
A universal identifying number for Americans turned out to be extraordinarily handy for all: You already had nine digits identifying you; why should a giant company go to the trouble of creating another? So the numbers began to be used outside of the Social Security system. This was bad. Having a single, semi-secure number that represents an American citizen turns out to be a massive security flaw in how we identify and manage human beings online. Very leaky. The numbers, required for banks and mortgages and college applications, are used way too broadly. They are listed in vulnerable databases. Those databases are hacked. The stolen information is distributed and resold. A secondary industry of credit fraud has flourished to handle this flaw. We were not ready for a world where everyone can be associated with a number; no one anticipated how broken our digital world would become.
But that’s all for the living. When we are done with life, like great baseball players, our numbers are retired, and this being the government, filed, into the Death Master File. Which is, as you’d expect, a list of dead people and their similarly deceased SSNs.
The web site cancelthesefunerals.com contains the work of a frustrated individual named Tom Alciere, who believes the Social Security administration is “unforgivably sloppy” and has added “tens of thousands” of individuals to the list who are not yet dead. Alciere has made the index available to all who want to download it. So I downloaded it, unzipped the files, and began to poke around. The data is in fixed-width format, meaning that it’s all blurred together, with no separation between the fields. It looks like this: 001111905doe john t v0506200202151918. (I erased a few spaces and changed a few details—privacy!)
In order to find out anything about these dead people I needed to convert the information to a more workable form. Eighty-five million of something is just big enough to be a pain; it takes a few minutes to search for a specific name. And it takes an even longer time to ingest 85 million names into a working database on a laptop computer. With some planning, you can whittle the process down to, say, an hour or two.
The Death Master File is something of a political hot potato of late. 60 Minutes has covered the story of living people registered as deceased—apparently, if news of your death is greatly exaggerated, it’s hell on your credit. In March 2015 the U.S. inspector general’s office announced that it had found 6.5 million people aged 112 or over in the living Social Security database who had yet to find their way into the database of the dead. Meaning there are 6.5 million more opportunities for fraud.
Under congressional edict, information has been stripped from the file; now there are just names, birth dates and death dates, some verification information, and of course Social Security numbers. Row after row, in a meta memento mori. If anything will force you to confront the fact that you will, inevitably, pass into incorporeality, it is this database. All must die, but bureaucracy survives.
It was easy to do a query, once I had the information organized, to find out the number of people who had the same first and last names. Rose Rose, Charles Charles, Antous Antous. Cupertino Cupertino. And to find the people born on the same day as me who had already died. That took a long time; a minute or two as the database went looking. One hundred and twenty three of them scrolled by, some dead in infancy, others making it into the 2000s. Old enough to have lives, children. I pulled out a name at random of someone who died in 2011 and Googled it: He was killed when his Chinook helicopter crashed in Wardak province, Afghanistan, leaving behind two children and a pregnant wife. Another person born on my birthday died in 2001, and the only thing that came up for her (or possibly him) was a web page listing birth and death dates; the page had been created automatically from data in the Death Master File. I don’t know for whom I feel more sorry: The dead Navy man or the dead anonymous person who, having died before the age of online obituaries, has already passed into obscurity. As I do all this, my cheap external hard drive makes little clicking noises. Another query, counting deaths on single dates, yielded this:
September 10, 2001: 5,652
September 11, 2001: 6,303
September 12, 2001: 5,730
I found my grandfather; I found my grandmother. I searched for my own name and realized that I have died 265 times, first in 1952, most recently in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available).
After some time with the database, I began to feel weird. Not only was I walking through this enormous digital morgue, but now I had this big pile of data that is publicly created, and available on other sites like archive.org—yet I was not officially certified, nor did I want to spend $1,825 and wait for certification. After all I’m a writer. I was on deadline. The New Republic called the Social Security offices a few times to find out what it all means. They didn’t call back. Which is fine. People get busy, they have Congress to deal with, and 6.5 million living dead people to confirm. Federally created works can’t be copyrighted, and since it was out there, and everyone in it was dead anyway (with a few exceptions), I figured, why not live a little?
A name is just some impulse by your parents; it does not determine who you are, except alphabetically, and yet it’s hard not to have at least a little occult sensitivity about one’s name. I have a common name and, occasionally, will hear from other people on Twitter or via email who share it, marveling at the coincidence; one person wrote to ask me to keep our name cool. I don’t know how I’m doing at that.
Being a digitally minded person I’ve followed the large public conversation about what happens to our passwords and social media presences when we die. How do you get into a dead person’s gmail? What should happen to their blog posts? Every social media platform must eventually face the consequences of its users dying. The tension is between these relatively new institutions, like Facebook and Twitter, and our typically long lives. They are too young to know what to do with our deaths and are learning to cope, as all children must.
But America, as an institution, knows what to do. The management of the deceased is a core function of government. I understood that the information was imperfect, that perhaps I should not be looking through it at all, that it was just a list of names and numbers and dates. But I kept exploring, aimlessly, through the massive rolls of American dead, and I began to feel strangely patriotic.
Look at all these people, assigned citizenship via nine digits, enjoying their duration on the mortal coil. Living people tend to this data, adding the newly gone in periodic updates. Almost all the names I saw were assigned to strangers; the Social Security numbers were a meaningless blur of digits. The checking accounts and properties are handed on to the next of kin. New people, like me, have come along to occupy the names. But numbers are unique, and they say: I was here. I existed. Bureaucracies organized me into folders. I was worth the paperwork.