26 February 2005

Social Security Numbers: A Modest Proposal

Yet again, a business has been cavalier with tens of thousands of people’s personal data . If your W-2 was processed by PayMaxx in the last few years, any number of people might have read it. There could be thousands of identity thefts as a result.

Yet it’s not really PayMaxx who will be at fault if identity theft occurs. The real problem is that too many businesses use Social Security Numbers (SSNs) for authentication.

SSNs aren’t unique, they aren’t secret, and they were never intended to be used as universal identifiers, let alone authentication tokens. However, the relative obscurity of SSNs has led many businesses to misuse them to verify identity, even though they are completely unsuitable for the purpose.

The simple and obvious solution would be for the US government to legislate prohibiting use of SSNs for any purpose other than identifying taxpayers and social security recipients to the federal government. The legislation would be set to take effect some time at least 12 months in the future, to give companies plenty of time to issue new identity numbers to their customers.

It seems obvious to me that that will never happen, however. Too many corporations with a vested interest in cross-referencing their databases with everyone else’s, and no motivation to spend money on real security.

But I contend that we don’t need to wait for government to act. As I’ve already mentioned, SSNs aren’t actually secret. It’s apparently pretty easy for any random company to get a database of SSNs, and it seems clear that hackers can obtain such databases too. So let’s try a thought experiment…

Suppose a secretive band of hackers obtains a large database of SSNs, ideally the SSNs of the majority of people in the USA. They take out prominent ads in the major national newspapers, announcing that as of January 2007, the database of SSNs will be made available to anyone who wants it, via the Internet.

Companies misusing SSNs would have a simple choice: either stop doing so, or face massive fraud against them in 2007. Shareholders wouldn’t give them much choice.

On January 2007, the database of SSNs is published anonymously to the Internet.

Of course, the perpetrators of this civic act would need to be careful to remain anonymous, lest they suffer a hailstorm of lawsuits, possibly even spurious claims of ‘terrorism’. But in the end, we would live in a better world–one where SSNs were clearly only useful for identification.

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