SSN use puts students at risk

Universities that use Social Security numbers as identification could be baiting thieves to steal students’ identities, security experts say.

Identity theft, a crime in which an imposter obtains information such as a Social Security number to obtain credit or services in the name of the victim, is becoming an “epidemic” said Linda Foley, executive director and founder of the identity theft resource center in San Diego.

“Students are so busy with books and laptops that they forget to keep their eye on anything
else,” Foley said. “You have to understand that the most valuable thing we have in our possession is our Social Security number. It ranks up there with your children.”

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission said identity theft was the fastest growing crime in the country and the Department of Justice estimates more than 700,000 cases occur annually.

Foley said that schools like GW are adding to the problem.

At GW, every student’s Social Security number automatically becomes his identification number, officials said. When students apply to the school, ask for financial aid or request to live on campus, each department has a computer system storing their Social Security numbers. The common use of the number is causing some faculty and students to worry about identity theft.

Lance Hoffman, a professor of computer science and an expert on Internet security, said the Social Security number was not created to be a “unique identifier.”

“It wasn’t designed to be tamper proof,” Hoffman said. “It was never designed to be a universal identifier. It should not be used like one.”

The government began issuing Social Security numbers in 1936, assuring the public that the numbers’ use would be limited to Social Security programs. Almost 70 years later, the number is one of the most frequently used record-keeping numbers in the United States, from employee files to medical records.

Hoffman recommended possibly changing the current nine-digit number to a longer 16-digit number. He referred to several European nations that use additional technology to keep identifiers secure, using longer numbers and requiring a pin number to access accounts.

GW law professor Orin Kerr also recommended a system change.

“It wasn’t intended to become an ID number, but it has and it’s not up to the job,” Kerr said.

Though GW does not seem to be adding to identity theft, Kerr recommended the University stop using Social Security numbers.

Brian Selinsky, director of Banner, GW’s main administrative software, said officials have debated changing student identification to another number but have not proposed a change.

“It’s an expensive proposition to do and it’s not a simple one,” Selinsky said. “Changing the system is not as simple as it sounds.”

Selinsky said he would need to remove old Social Security numbers while adding fields to accept the new numbers. Selinsky also said he would need to examine every record that has a Social Security number and make sure the numbers were not being displayed.

“It would be simpler to start over and create a new system,” he said. “It’s not practical at all. Many people probably prefer their social because they remember it.”

Schools have been dealing with issues of privacy since 1974 when Congress passed the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act. The law requires schools to assure students some protection for the privacy of their records, but it allows schools to keep the numbers in school files.

In the last two years, however, states like New York and Illinois have ordered colleges and universities to stop using Social Security numbers as identification. Though the numbers remain on file, they are only used when reporting information to the federal government.

Registrar Dennis L. Geyer said students that are worried about their identities being stolen are able to request a different number for their identification by filing a form in the Registrar’s Office.

However, Geyer stresses that students’ Social Security numbers are secure. He pointed out that GWorld cards do not display the number and said he notifies professors that it is illegal under FERPA to publicly display a student’s Social Security number.

But Geyer said that some professors disregard the rules and he has asked students to report professors who do so.

“You have to take responsibility for protecting your own identity,” he said.

Sophomore Lisa Fineberg said she did not know she could change her number and plans to switch it.

“My Social Security number is not secure,” she said. “I have to write it on every test I take and write it on a dozen different GW Web sites.”

Foley said students need to put “pressure” on the administration to switch the use of Social Security numbers.

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