Friday, July 17, 2009

Why We Need a Better Identification System

Earlier this month the genealogy community was talking about the new study by Carnegie Mellon University about its ability to guess people's social security numbers. Dick Eastman wrote about it being a non-issue.

People are very concerned about identity theft nowadays. And they should be. But at the same time people do many things to increase their odds of being a victim.

The first 5 digits of a person's social security number can be obtained through government websites. It is very hard to guess the last 4 numbers, but they are often given out freely. How many times have you been asked the last 4 numbers of your social security number by a company or website? How often are the last 4 digits of your social security number not blocked out on documents? If you have the last 4 digits, how hard is it to figure out the rest?

Websites often ask a "secret" question in order to retrieve your password if you forget it. How many times have you given your mother's maiden name as the answer? If you give your place of birth, doesn't that help solve the rest of your social security number? Sarah Palin was a victim of someone hacking into her Yahoo email account because the answer to her "secret" question was public information.

So why are we still using secret questions and social security numbers as identification when others can sometimes easily figure them out?

This week, Slate had a great article called "No, You Can't Have My Social Security Number: Why Using SSNs for identification is risky and stupid." Social security numbers were never meant to be used for identification. Only for collecting and doling out social security money. So why do I need it to get my driver's license? Slate also had a take on Sarah Palin's email hack and how easy it has become. With the proliferation of personal information on sites like Facebook and Myspace, it is becoming easier.

I absolutely DO NOT think that records should be closed. I DO NOT think that the social security death index should be closed to the public. I DO think that we need to find better ways as a society to keep our identities secure. I may not know what that is, but there has to be a better way.

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