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article imageStudy: Social security numbers in U.S. not as secure as you think

By Mat Elmore     Jul 7, 2009 in Politics
A group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have found it's easy to guess a person's social security number by only using publicly available information, such as a person's birth data.
Guessing someone's social security number is not as hard as one may think.
According to an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences authored by Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross of Carnegie Mellon University, social security numbers are significantly more vulnerable to fraud than previously thought.
"Our work shows that Social Security numbers are compromised as authentication devices, because if they are predictable from public data, then they cannot be considered sensitive," said Acquisti.
The study claims that a social security number can be guessed with only a person's location and date of birth. The accuracy with which someone can guess another person's social security number depends on the state which the person was born and their birthdate.
The report raises serious concerns in an age of social networking where many people freely and enthusiastically distribute information about themselves online.
“This report is a wake-up call,” said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University, as quoted in the New York Times. “Social Security numbers are an aging technology, and we have to do serious planning for what will come next.”
Not all agree that the report is as important as Swire believes, however.
“The public should not be alarmed by this report because there is no foolproof method for predicting a person’s Social Security number,” said a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. “The method by which Social Security assigns numbers has been a matter of public record for years.
The Social Security Administration did tell the Washington Post that "for reasons unrelated to this report, the agency has been developing a system to randomly assign SSNs."
The study concludes by stating:
"The predictability of SSNs is an unexpected consequence of the interaction between multiple data sources, trends in information exposure, and antifraud policy initiatives with unintended effects. It exposes the privacy tradeoffs of information-disclosure policies."
According to the Washington Post, "the results come as concern grows over identity theft and lawmakers in Washington push legislation that would bar businesses from requiring people to supply their Social Security number when purchasing a good or service."
More about Social security number, Ssn, Fraud, Study, Carnegie mellon university
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