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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Cellphone numbers have become a primary way for tech companies like Facebook to uniquely identify users and secure accounts, in some ways becoming a proxy for a national ID.

Why it matters: That over-reliance on cellphone numbers ironically makes them a less effective and secure authentication method. And the more valuable the phone number becomes as an identifier, the less willing people will be to share it for communication.

Driving the news: Facebook faced criticism this week for its handling of phone numbers that users provide for the purpose of two-factor authentication (2FA) — in which a person's login is protected by both a password and a device like their smartphone.

  • Some users found Facebook had enabled people to connect their profiles and phone numbers, transforming 2FA from a way to protect personal security into a personal privacy breach.
  • Facebook pointed to a privacy control option that allows users to limit, but not entirely eliminate, this sort of identification.

The big picture: American culture and law are hostile to establishing any sort of national ID, leaving businesses and organizations to find substitutes.

  • Passports don't work for non-citizens, and drivers' licenses are handled by states.
  • Social Security numbers were created to track workers' contributions to retirement benefits but gradually got drafted for other uses by, among others, the IRS and the health care system.
  • Many Americans try to avoid broadcasting SSNs online. But now people have to share them with so many institutions and clerks that there's very little that's truly secret about them.

Background: The internet lacks its own identity system. Email addresses were long a popular but imperfect choice.

  • Each address is unique and, once verified, is useful for receiving information intended only for you.
  • But email is an insecure system, ridden with spam, and once the addresses became essentially free it became easy for one person to use many accounts or quickly switch to new ones.

What's next: Cellphone numbers are becoming Americans' latest quasi-identity system.

  • Once Congress mandated that you could take your phone number from one provider to another, the U.S. ended up with a de facto "cellphone number for life" system.
  • You can switch, of course, but it means changing how your whole social network connects with you.

To be sure: Since so many of us carry a phone at all times and use it as a wallet and a diary, it's natural for it to be treated like a set of keys as well.

  • Some privacy-conscious apps, like Tinder, give users the option of signing up with a phone number rather than through Facebook.
  • That practice only makes people angrier when they feel they're victims of a bait-and-switch like the one Facebook is being charged with.

Be smart: The more people use phone numbers to unlock things, the less widely they'll want to share them, which makes them less useful for connecting people.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

3 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 3 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."