Stories

Solving Social Security's ID dilemma

Social security card registered to Elvis
Photo: Zak Hussein/Corbis via Getty Images

The Center for Strategic and International Studies and McAfee released a new report on modernizing the Social Security number system Wednesday. And the numbers are a thing that need modernizing — we use them as identification in everything from mortgages to job applications, despite the fact that they're easy to steal.

The problem: “If we look at how well we're doing right now with Social Security, an estimated 60–80% are already compromised,” said Candace Worley, McAfee vice president and chief technical strategist. That’s because the online world has opened up previously unavailable potential for hackers to steal and sell Social Security numbers.

The problem with solving the problem: There’s an obvious next step to solving the problem — using the Social Security number like a username and using something else as a password or changing the number to something harder to steal, like a biometric. But many of the global models require national databases that the U.S. populace is traditionally against.

  • India uses a biometric ID system, but U.S. citizens won’t enjoy giving up their fingerprints to the government.
  • A national ID with a smart chip could solve the problem, but U.S. citizens don’t love national IDs.

The bottom line: A middle-ground solution, according to the report, might be to allow private companies to run smart card based identifiers, kind of like a credit card. Citizens could chose who would be in charge of holding their data and replacing lost or stolen cards.

  • Worley agrees there’s a downside that would need to be ironed out: It’s hard to get private firms involved without necessitating a subscription model.