Social Security Number: All-Purpose Identifier

Your Social Security number was never meant to serve the various functions it is used for today. Over the past 70 years, the Social Security number has become our de facto national ID. The numbers were originally issued in the 1930s, to track income for Social Security benefits. But “functionality creep,” which occurs when an item, process, or procedure ends up serving a purpose it was never intended to perform, soon took effect.

Banks, motor vehicle registries, doctors’ offices, insurance companies, and even utilities often require a Social Security number to do business. Why do they need it? Sometimes it’s because your Social Security number is attached to government records like taxes or criminal records, but most often it’s because the number is attached to your credit file.

The IRS adopted our Social Security numbers as identifiers for our tax files about 50 years or so ago. Around the same time, banks began using Social Security numbers to report interest payments, and so on.

All the while, Social Security numbers were required for all workers, so their Social Security benefits could be paid. Most people were assigned a number when they applied, sometime around the age of 16. This was until the 1980s, when the IRS began issuing Social Security numbers to track children and babies who were claimed as dependents. By the late ‘90s, it was standard for most hospitals to provide Social Security number application to new moms.

A federal law enacted in 1996 determined that Social Security numbers should be used for “any applicant for a professional license, driver’s license, occupational license, recreational license or marriage license.” The number can be used and recorded by creditors, the Department of Motor Vehicles, whenever a cash transaction exceeds $10,000, and in military matters.

All this leads up to the unfortunate realization that your Social Security number is out there in hundreds, or even thousands of places. It is most definitely not private, nor can it be adequately protected. It’s just like a credit card number. You give it out, you hope the person or company is responsible with it, you hope it’s not breached, but all you can do is monitor your identity’s health and, if your identity is ever stolen, take the appropriate steps in response.

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Robert Siciliano is an Online Security Evangelist for McAfee.   See him discuss the use of Social Security numbers as national identification on Fox News. (Disclosures)

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