Civic Aims To Kill SSNs As a Form of Authentication

  • Philip Ryan
  • July 19, 2016
  • 1

ssn_cardHave you used your social security number lately? Has anyone else used your social security number? How would you know? A company launching today called Civic wants to keep you informed on this.

If a social security number becomes “compromised” — meaning known —  its owner is at significantly elevated risk of having his identity stolen. SSNs are offered for sale alongside other personal identifying information on the internet, and can be used to open accounts, take out loans, and more. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Social security numbers were created in 1935 to track individuals in the Social Security program, but, in the absence of a national identity system, soon became used as the identification number for just about everything. They’re entered on forms at the dentist’s office, used by employers and landlords, requested by billers who have little conceivable need of them, promiscuously reproduced and stuffed into filing cabinets — and yet somehow they’re supposed to be kept secret.

Vinny Lingham, founder of the gift card business Gyft, acquired by First Data in 2014, aims to change that. His new company, Civic, announced at Finovate in May and open to the public today, will alert users whenever their social security number is used.

“Civic will let people know when their social security number is being used, and provide a $1 million free policy for identity theft,” Lingham told Bank Innovation. “We want to be the gateway that gets hit first,” he said, and prevent further damage. He raised $2.75 million to start the company back in January.

The company determines when an SSN has been used by soft pulls from credit bureaus, and a proprietary system with multiple inputs that will expand its reach and depth over time.

This free service could be valuable and save consumers and businesses money and worry by alerting them when fraud is happening, not months afterward, Lingham said. After Civic’s Finovate demos, “smaller banks were very interested” in the service, according to Lingham. The service could be offered to banks to protect their customers.

Other companies operating in a similar space are Trunomi, which helps customers gain control of their personal data, and ShoCard, which uses the blockchain to verify identity.

It is a significant problem in banking, Lingham said, that banks spend more time in AML/KYC for new customers than they do about safeguarding existing customers. Civic could provide a partial fix for that.

Credit reports, as John Oliver showed, contain false information in a distressingly large number of cases. This won’t be an issue with Civic, because it will contain no records and build no reports of customers. “We do nothing subjective,” Lingham said.

But Lingham’s plans run far beyond fraud protection, valuable as that is. Later in 2016, Civic will roll out features for guardians of children and the elderly to set watches on their social security numbers. It is unfortunately common for young people applying for their first loan to be told their credit compromised, and for the elderly to be victimized without their knowledge by fraudsters.

Civic members will also receive push notifications from TransUnion in the event of a change to their credit report, the company announced today.

Civic’s roadmap also includes plans to build out an “alternate identity system,” Lingham said, possibly using blockchain technology. (Gyft was initially best known for its strong support of the bitcoin community.) This won’t be part of the launch product, but is expected in the second half of the year.

Building an identity network is an ambitious goal, but Lingham’s initial product should find adherents among the fraud-conscious, and among bankers more aware of these issues than the average consumer. “We’re using best-of-breed technology to provide a useful product that was not available in the market,” Lingham said.

If all goes well in a few years you won’t be asked for your SSN to get your teeth cleaned, you’ll scan your Civic card (or wrist implant.)

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Philip Ryan is Senior Editor of Bank Innovation and Senior Director of INV Fintech. He began covering financial services in 2012 and has more than 15 years' experience in online journalism. He can be reached at

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