Say Goodbye to Social Security Numbers as Unique Identifiers (Please?)

The White House and Equifax, admittedly two of the nation’s least trusted institutions at the moment, agree that social security as unique identifiers have to go. Equifax, which stored basically everybody’s unencrypted SSNs on its network without their permission and then was hacked, leaking more than 145 million people’s personal information, leading to the ouster of its CEO, has clear motives for wanting this. As for the White House, well, who knows anymore?

But security experts are unanimously in agreement. Social Security numbers were never meant to serve as the passwords to our identities (they should be thought of more as usernames, many argue) and are difficult to keep secret, particularly in a world where they can be accessed digitally and sent across the world to an unlimited number of recipients in a fraction of a second.

“The concept of a Social Security number in this environment being private and secure — I think it’s time as a country to think beyond that,” ousted Equifax CEO Richard Smith said at a Congressional hearing called to excoriate him. “What is a better way to identify consumers in our country in a very secure way? I think that way is something different than an SSN, a date of birth and a name.” Smith noted that his own SSN had been compromised at least four times in his life, to his knowledge. (This is the raison d’etre of startups such as Civic.)

What better way exists to verify identity in an increasingly digital world? Perhaps a “modern cryptographic identifier,” according to White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce. This refers to a blockchain-based system were an individual has public and private keys. A public key might be compared to your post office box, the address of which can be safely shared, while your private key, just like the physical key to unlock that P.O. box, should not be.

Such a digital identity system exists in Estonia, but would be massively expensive to implement in the U.S. according to experts, and would probably draw protest from libertarians and privacy advocates who apparently believe national identity systems abridge their Constitutional rights. Such misguided objections and the intransigence and indifference of entrenched institutions should guarantee your Social Security number will be requested for years to come as proof of your identity, and will be employed as such by people who are not you.

Read more in Bloomberg and Ars Technica.

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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, which makes him quite old. He can be reached at pryan@royalmedia.com.

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