Hacks: The end of Social Security numbers?
Social Security numbers may have outlived their usefulness, said Yuka Hayashi in The Wall Street Journal. Nearly 150 million Americans had their Social Security numbers exposed in last month’s Equifax hack, leading one White House official to suggest it’s time to phase them out for something “safer.” The current nine-digit system to prove our identity is “flawed” and “untenable,” said Rob Joyce, President Trump’s cybersecurity coordinator, noting his own number had been “compromised at least four times.” Having your Social Security number exposed is more serious than having other data compromised, because it makes it easier for identity thieves to impersonate you, said Craig Timberg in The Washington Post. When Social Security numbers are combined with other data, such as driver’s license numbers, birth dates, and home addresses, fraudsters can “apply for loans, housing, utilities, and even government benefits in your name.” And since a range of government agencies, credit bureaus, and employers keep records of Social Security numbers, they are relatively easy to steal.
Social Security numbers were never meant to be used the way they are today, said Josephine Wolff in Qz.com. The numbers were introduced in 1936 as a means to track each American worker’s earnings to determine their Social Security benefits. “Only gradually, through an unfortunate convergence of convenience and shortsightedness, did they turn into a crucial piece of information needed for everything from opening bank accounts to applying for loans, marriage licenses, and jobs.” They can be changed if necessary, but “the process is neither quick nor straightforward.” One replacement option being discussed is to give individuals “a private key, essentially a long cryptographic number,” said Nafeesa Syeed in Bloomberg.com. It would be embedded in a physical card or token, and users would be required to verify that the number belonged to them. “It could work like the chip in a credit card that requires the owner to enter a PIN allowing use.” But it would be expensive to design the system and distribute cards to every American.
Biometric identifiers, “such as fingerprints, iris scans, and voice and facial recognition,” are another potential alternative, said Kaya Yurieff in CNN.com. That technology already exists: Many smartphone owners already use fingerprints to unlock their phones, and the global bank HSBC has deployed a voice recognition system that “analyzes more than 100 behavioral and physical voice characteristics to identify and authenticate the customer.” Just don’t expect any changes soon, said Susan Tompor in the Detroit Free Press. This is Washington, after all. Even if the government can come up with something safer, it will be a “gigantic step for banks, employers, and others to totally abandon” Social Security numbers. ■