I just want to be a number

Imagine living in a world where you couldn’t reveal your name.  If people asked your name, you’d regard them with suspicion, only revealing it when absolutely necessary.  You have it erased from all your personal documents and even your driver’s license.  Identifying yourself would be chaos, as others would need to use lots of other information such as address, phone number, and date of birth in order to make sure you were you.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  But we live in a similar world.   The Social Security Number was created in the 1930s to identify Social Security participants.  It was the numerical equivalent of a name, a unique number that could be used to ensure the money contributed by an individual was credited to them for retirement.  Today, though, your SSN is more like a password than an id.  It’s something to be guarded and kept safe, only revealed when necessary.

How did we get to the point where we fear to reveal this very important number?  How have we been let down by a system that depends on this number to identify us, yet can’t protect us if someone finds the number out?

When the Social Security Program was created by FDR in 1935, identifying each participant with a number was vital as people were paying into a system and needed to be assured they would receive the correct retirement benefits later in return, possible only if they could be correctly identified later.  There was no sinister purpose to the number, it was purely for the benefit and reassurance of the participant.

Today the number is used by many federal agencies, including the IRS.  It’s also used by many state and local government agencies, such as the driver’s license authority in each state, as well as by many private businesses such as banks and credit reporting agencies.  Therefore it has become useful to identify oneself for the purpose of credit card applications and other credit transactions.

Its use reached a peak, however, 10 or 20 years ago, and has been on the decline.  For example, many states now allow a driver’s licensee to have a different non-SSN number placed on their license to identify them.  Most private companies use a customer number, so each of us has dozens of customer ID numbers for various accounts.

The reason is identity theft.  People are fearful that if their SSN is revealed, it could be used to open an account or apply for credit in their name.  So they often refuse to reveal it.  Out of fear, we are losing this very useful identification system.

How many times have you called customer service for a company and been asked your account number which you didn’t have handy?  Most people know their SSN, so if your SSN was your account number for every account you have, you’d know all your account numbers!

How can we fix this?  It’s simple, we just have to start treating the SSN as a public name instead of as a secret password.  If someone knows your name, we don’t assume they are you.  The same should be true of SSNs.

That’s the easy part.  It’s easy to say the SSN should not have to be treated like a secret, or that someone knowing it proves they are you.  The hard part is how to go about proving who you are in a world where SSNs are no longer used for that.  And that will wait for a following post.

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