PURPOSE: To state the principles for disclosing information obtained from a foreign country in connection with administering an international Social Security agreement.
CITATIONS (AUTHORITY): 5 U.S.C. 552; Sections 1106(a) and 233 of the Social Security Act; and 20 C.F.R., Parts 401, 422 (Subpart E) and Part 404 (Subpart T).
PERTINENT HISTORY: Section 317 of the Social Security Amendments of 1977 (public Law 95-216) added section 233 of the Social Security Act. It authorizes the President to enter into bilateral agreements with other countries to (1) provide totalization arrangements between the United States Social Security system and the Social security system of the other country, and (2) eliminate dual Social Security coverage and taxation for work covered under both Social Security systems. The pertinent history of this provision was previously published in Program Policy Statement (PPS) No. 51.
ISSUES AND OPTIONS: The basic policies relating to totalization agreements were published in PPS No. 51 and PPS No. 56, and later as Social Security rulings (SSR 80-15 and SSR 81-8). This PPS addresses the issue of disclosure of information obtained by the Social Security Administration (SSA) from foreign countries in the course of administering these agreements.
International Social Security agreements are designed, in part, to prevent gaps in Social Security protection for people who work at various times under the U.S. program and the program of another country. Once an agreement takes effect, SSA must take, develop and adjudicate claims for United States totalized benefits based on a claimant's work history in both the United States and the other country. In order to assist SSA in determining a claimant's eligibility for and the amount of totalized U.S. benefits, the other country party to an agreement may provide SSA with certain information in its possession.
For purposes of this PPS, the term "information received from a foreign country" means personal information SSA receives from the records maintained by the government of a foreign country which is party to an international Social Security Agreement with the U.S. This information may include personal information on the claimant's earnings in the other country, such as the amount of earnings on which Social Security contributions were made to the foreign system, the periods of work in the other country, and so on. The term does not include information the foreign country receives on behalf of SSA and forwards to SSA. For example, if an individual files a claim for U.S. benefits with a foreign country, any information on the application and any evidence or documents submitted by the claimant would not be considered information received from a foreign country; rather, it would be treated as if it were initially received by SSA directly from the claimant.
When SSA received information from a foreign country in the course of administering an international agreement, that information becomes part of SSA records. As part of SSA records, it is subject to U.S. law governing privacy and disclosure. In determining whether to disclose information received from a foreign country, SSA will apply the rules set out in 20 CFR Part 401. SSA will disclose personal information when specifically required by Federal statutes and will not disclose personal information whenever disclosure is specifically prohibited by Federal statutes. See 20 CFR 401.205 and 401.210. Whenever disclosure is neither required nor prohibited by Federal law, SSA will look to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) principles to decide on disclosure, even if the FOIA does not specifically apply (e.g., when information is requested by a Federal agency). See 20 CFR 401.215 and 401.300. This assures uniform criteria for evaluating all disclosure questions, and in applying these principles, SSA will not disclose the information if its release would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. If the privacy interests served by withholding the information outweigh the public interests served by disclosure, SSA will not disclose.
In applying FOIA principles to information received from a foreign country SSA will take into account the public interest involved in the conclusion and administration of international Social Security agreements. Any routine disclosure of information received from a foreign country could undermine that country's confidence in the U.S. enforcement of the agreement and thus could jeopardize its effective administration. Also, if SSA routinely disclosed this information, countries with stringent privacy and disclosure laws may hesitate to enter into Social Security agreements with the U.S. and thus impede implementation of the totalization statute. The U.S. benefits from international Social Security agreements because they improve the protection afforded U.S. citizens and residents who have worked in other countries. In addition, the agreements eliminate any dual coverage and taxation of U.S. employers and their U.S. employees working in a country party to an agreement. Therefore, by not disclosing information received from a foreign country, which would result in a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, SSA will serve the public interest by assuring the effective implementation of international Social Security agreements.
In most instances, U.S. law will protect information received from a foreign country to the same extent that it protects information received from a U.S. source. However, the protection afforded U.S. Federal tax return information under the Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C. 6103), as amended by the Tax Reform Act of 1976, does not extend to similar tax-related information received from a foreign country, unless it is obtained by the Treasury Department for a U.S. Federal tax purpose. Thus, if a foreign country provides SSA with foreign tax-related information, that information would not be protected by the Internal Revenue Code.
In affording protection to U.S. tax return information, Congress recognized that this information is of a highly sensitive and personal nature and its disclosure could lead to an unwarranted invasion of individual rights and privacy. The fact that this type of information may have come from a foreign country does not change its personal and sensitive nature. Therefore, SSA will protect the privacy of this information to the extent it legally can by applying FOIA principles. For example, under 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(6), information is exempt from the mandatory disclosure provisions of the FOIA if such disclosure would represent a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. Whether or not the disclosure would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy is a decision to be made by SSA. Considering the great sensitivity of U.S. tax information and the scope of its protections under U.S. law, SSA may conclude that disclosure of similar foreign tax information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
POLICY STATEMENT: Personal information received by SSA from a foreign country in connection with the administration of a Social Security agreement between the U.S. and that country will be accorded the same protection as other sensitive personal information in the records of SSA.
When disclosure is specifically required by Federal statutes, personal information will be disclosed. When disclosure is specifically prohibited by Federal statutes, personal information will not be disclosed. When disclosure is neither specifically required nor prohibited by Federal statutes, SSA will apply the principles of the FOIA in determining whether to disclose information received from a foreign country, and will consider the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the information in order to protect the effective implementation of the agreement. Accordingly, the confidentiality of personal information received by SSA from a foreign country, including tax related information, will be safeguarded in accordance with the principles embodied in the FOIA, particularly 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(6).
EFFECTIVE DATE: These policies are effective November 1, 1978 the effective date of the first international Social Security agreement.
CROSS-REFERENCES: Claims Manual chapter 3700, Program Operations Manual System, Part 02, Chapter 033; PPS No. 51 (Social Security Ruling No. 80-15), Title II: International Social Security (Totalization) Agreements; PPS No. 56 (Social Security Ruling No. 81-8) Title II: International Social Security (Totalization) Agreements-Miscellaneous Provisions.
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