NewsOctober 11, 2017 @ 1:35 PM

Social Security Numbers Put Personal Data at Risk

Social Security numbers (SSNs) are well-known to the American populace. First assigned in 1936 to track individuals’ earnings, these numbers have become de facto personal identifiers for the American masses.

SSNs have become linked to identities because of their ubiquity. Most people have a SSN, and it is the path of least resistance to correlate an individual with a unique number that does not change during his or her lifetime. All types of institutions, from government agencies to credit bureaus and employers, keep records of these numbers.

That may change soon. Recent data breaches have demonstrated how a compromised SSN can put an individual’s personal data at risk.

Personal Data at Risk Due to Reliance on SSNs

According to Slate, Rob Joyce, cybersecurity coordinator and a special assistant to President Donald Trump, said at a Washington Post event last week that administration is looking for ways to phase out the use of SSNs as identifiers. “Every time we use the Social Security number, you put it at risk,” Joyce said at the event.

Security experts have long recognized our overuse of SSNs as problematic. But what can be done? Joyce told event attendees that federal agencies had been directed to seek different methods of identification. These methods might include a “modern cryptographic identifier,” such as public and private keys, to decrease reliance on the use of SSNs. However, there is no obvious solution.

Alternative Options

There have been previous attempts to reduce SSN reliance. In January 2016, for example, former President Barack Obama signed a bill that lifted the requirement for taxpayers to include their full SSN on W-2 forms. Similarly, the U.S. Navy rolled out an initiative to replace SSNs with a unique personal identification number issued by the Department of Defense, according to a 2010 memo.

Still, the effort continues. Whatever the eventual solution, it will have a widespread effect on how business gets done throughout the U.S.

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Larry Loeb

Principal, PBC Enterprises

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He wrote for IBM's DeveloperWorks site for seven years and has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange.