@Info.Policy: A nation of SSN junkies

Robert Gellman

All 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had Social Security numbers. They knew the importance of having an SSN to function in American society.

The terrorists highlighted'for the zillionth time'problems with the use of SSNs. Everyone acknowledges that SSNs were not intended for general-purpose identification, but it happened anyway.

We got here through a series of separate decisions made without much consideration of the broader consequences for the integrity of government and private operations or for individual privacy.

The biggest blunder was adoption of the SSN as a taxpayer identification number. That has resulted in widespread collection, maintenance and reporting of SSNs because all transactions with tax consequences must include such a number. Many other uses came about because it wasn't illegal to use the SSN or because organizations were too cheap or too lazy to find a better ID.

What we have now is a silly system that supports identity theft; undermines the security of government, financial and other institutions; threatens homeland security; and hides or shifts costs. We accept all that, yet the SSN isn't even a good identifier any more. We have spent decades fiddling with it using chewing gum and paper clips. Each fix solves one problem and creates others.

We have become a nation of SSN junkies. We know SSNs are not good for us, but we keep using them anyway. We have the worst of all possible worlds: a rotten ID system that we keep using despite huge costs and terrible consequences. We need to find a better way.

Most recent responses to the SSN problem focus on better controls over the numbers or less use of them. That helps some, but it is just more patchwork. These responses focus on the wrong end of the problem. We have to stop everyone from relying on the SSN as the ticket to employment, credit, insurance, driver's licenses and other routine activities.

What to do? The right answer probably is reliance on multiple means of improved identification rather than either the SSN or a single ID system or card.

The Markle Foundation's new report on a trusted information network for homeland security, at www.markle.org, is the latest call for multiple forms of better identification. Interestingly, the appendix on identification was written by Amitai Etzioni, a one-time national ID card hawk.

Who will object to identification reform? Only everybody. Virtually every major American institution would be affected, including credit grantors, bureaucrats, researchers, employers, insurers, schools, financial institutions and others who use the SSN because it is there or because they don't have a choice.

These defects will eventually have to be faced. It won't be cheap, and it won't be easy. And the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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