Securing the Social Security Number to Protect U.S. Citizens

With cyber criminals having more flexibility in funding and operations than ever before, U.S. citizens are vulnerable not only to breaches of security but also of privacy. In the United States, no article of personal information is meant to be more private or secure than the Social Security Number (SSN). This is for good reason. The SSN has become a common identifier in the U.S. and is now integrated into many identification processes across different institutions.

The SSN is also the gateway to all sorts of other personal information – health records, financial positions, employment records, and a host of other purposes for which the SSN was never designed but has come to fulfill. What do all these pieces of information have in common? They are meant to be private.

Unfortunately, the unforeseen overreliance on the SSN as an identifier has left citizens’ identities vulnerable. The reality is that the SSN can easily be stolen and misused. It is a low-risk, high-reward target for cybercriminals that is used for fraudulent activities and also sold in bulk on the cybercrime black market. This has resulted in major privacy and security vulnerabilities for Americans, with some estimates saying that between 60 percent and 80 percent of all SSNs have been stolen. For example, Equifax and OPM breaches exposed probably millions of SSNs.

This is not a new problem.

Twenty-five years ago, computer scientists voiced concerns about sharing a single piece of permanent information as a means of proving a person’s identity. The issue has only recently gained national attention due to major breaches where cyber criminals were able to access millions of consumers’ personal online information. So, why hasn’t there been any significant measure put in place to safeguard digital identities?

A major reason for a lack of action on this issue has been a lack of incentives or forcing functions to change the way identity transactions work. But it’s time for policymakers to modernize the systems and methods that identify citizens and enable citizens to prove their identity with minimal risk of impersonation and without overtly compromising privacy.

The good news is that the U.S. has the technology pieces to put in place a high-quality and high security identity solution for U.S. citizens.

There are reasonable and near-term steps we can take to modernize and protect the Social Security Number to create better privacy and security in identification practices. McAfee and The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently released a study on Modernizing the Social Security Number with the aim of turning the Social Security Number into a secure and private foundation for digital credentials. The report’s ultimate recommendation is to replace the traditional paper Social Security card with a smart card — a plastic card with an embedded chip, like the credit cards that most people now carry. Having a smart card rather than a paper issued SSN would make the SSN less vulnerable to misuse.

A smart card is a viable solution that already has the infrastructure in place to support it. However, there are other potential solutions that must not be overlooked, such as biometrics. Biometrics measure personal features such as voice, fingerprint, iris and hand motions. Integrating biometrics into a system that relies on two-factor authentication would provide a security and privacy threshold that would make it very difficult for cybercriminals to replicate.

What is most critical, however, is that action is taken. This is an issue that deserves immediate attention and action. Every day this matter remains unresolved is another day cyber criminals continue their efforts to compromise consumer data in order to impersonate those whose data has been breached.

With the Social Security Number serving as the ultimate identifier, isn’t it time that we modernize it to address today’s evolving privacy vulnerabilities? Modernizing the SSN will help with authentication, will provide more security, and will help safeguard individual privacy. Modernizing the SSN must be a high priority for our policymakers.

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