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The Privacy of Social Security Numbers

I attended two Congressional hearings last week that underscore the importance of securing information systems that contain Social Security Numbers (SSN) and that further mark the trend to discourage SSN use as identifiers except for limited purposes.

The House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Information Policy in a hearing on identity theft explored the growing instances of electronic data theft. Patrick O'Carroll, Acting Inspector General of the Social Security Administration, in his testimony described how SSN's printed on university student ID cards make the owners of these SSN's potential targets. He also described a recently discovered offer to sell up to 10,000 SSN's with matching names on eBay which were traceable to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke where SSNs serve as the identifiers for its staff, current students, and applicants.

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection also held a hearing on H.R. 2971, the Social Security Privacy and Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2003, that would make it an unfair and deceptive trade practice under the Federal Trade Commission Act for any person to refuse to do business with an individual because the individual will not consent to that person's receipt of the Social Security number. Testimony provided by Barbara Bovbjerg from the U.S. Government Accountability Office warns:

The use of SSNs by both private and public sector entities is likely to continue, but the more frequently SSNs are used, the more likely they are to be misused given the continued rise in identity crimes. In considering restrictions to SSN use, policy makers will have to balance the protections that could occur from such restrictions with legitimate business needs for the use of SSNs.

The GAO Report ("SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS: Use Is Widespread and Protections Vary in Private and Public Sectors") is a useful resource, especially the discussion on pages 7-8 of restrictions placed upon SSN use as a result of federal laws and summary of state laws on pages 8-9. Additionally, if you are considering the elimination of SSNs as primary identifiers (a recommendation of the Security Task Force), then I would refer you to the resources that we have assembled at

Tags from the EDUCAUSE Library