SA, students criticize SSN usage

The Student Association is taking preliminary steps this week to advocate its position against the University’s use of Social Security numbers as a primary form of student identification.

SA President Kris Hart said he is encouraging students to request randomly generated identification numbers from the Office of the Registrar to replace Social Security numbers, which the University currently uses.

“This (service) has always been available,” Hart said. “It’s just that no one ever knew about it.”

By Friday, the SA will send a blast e-mail over the SA listserv explaining the identification policy and risks of identity theft and providing a link to the forms needed to request a randomly generated number. Request forms can be found in the SA office in Marvin Center 424 and will be available at SA events.

“Hopefully this will trigger something within the administration to start thinking about using something else for student identification,” Hart said. “This is our way to try to get them to move forward to find another way to identify students without putting their security in jeopardy.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission, 27.3 million Americans have been victims of identity theft in the past five years, and half of the incidents occurred in the past year.

With the number of crimes on the rise, University Provost John Williams said senior administrators have had “early discussions” about whether GW should switch its means of primary identification.

Williams said GW security officials “recommended” that the University should not post Social Security numbers in public places.

Hart said he has been pressing the senior administration and the Board of Trustees to change the system since he began his term in May.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “I was very concerned. I am in a good position to make it a forefront issue. Hopefully we’ll see a lot of forms coming in soon.”

Social Security numbers are used by students to log into the Banner Web System, where they register for classes and access transcripts and other information. Banner security administrator Annette Payne said the use of these numbers has been a GW policy since before she arrived, and that she has heard little about plans to change it.

“Ideas were tossed in the air, but no one has gotten back to me yet,” she said. “Several department heads would have to approve it, and it will probably cost a lot of money. It shouldn’t be difficult because we’re already using numbers, and we’d only have to scramble them.”

Other universities have taken action to reduce the usage of Social Security numbers in response to concerns about identity theft. About half of the colleges in the United States use Social Security numbers as students’ primary identifications, according to a March 2002 survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Last year Northern Illinois University reduced the exposure of the numbers on documents that go out to faculty and other areas of the university.

Don Larson, Northern Illinois executive director of enrollment services, registration and records, said the initiative is part of a larger project to replace the university’s data system.

“This is our interim step. We haven’t eliminated Social Security identifications, and it won’t be totally eliminated,” Larson said. “It will always be an identifier for internal purposes.” He added that Social Security numbers will always be necessary for SAT score reports, Internal Revenue Service forms and financial aid purposes.

The database will be replaced within the next three years and will cost NIU $8 million. In the meantime, Larson said NIU students are replacing their identification numbers with ZIDs, which are their e-mail address usernames.

“There wasn’t an expense for this part of it that couldn’t be covered by internal reallocations,” Larson said.

Although Northern Illinois did not report any incidents of student identity theft, Larson said the university’s provost had his Social Security number lifted, resulting in someone opening up a credit card and charging items to the new account.

Last week at GW, files containing various forms of confidential documents, including students’ Social Security numbers and financial account information, were discovered by The Hatchet in a New Hall closet. Some students said they were unhappy that nothing had been done earlier to end this practice.

“It’s ridiculous that when I sign into housing at the beginning of the year, everyone’s Social Security number and name are listed,” junior Josh Gold said. “What happened with New Hall is indicative of why I don’t want GW to use it as my ID.”

Many students said they had never considered the risks of the use of Social Security numbers before. But since the New Hall incident, they said that they are now starting to question the safety of their private information.

“If they have it set up like that, I figured they had the necessary protocols to make sure that it is kept safe,” junior Mike Konstantopoulos said. “But apparently not.”

Williams said progress should be made in the near future concerning Social Security numbers.

“It’s not an easy thing. There are thousands of numbers to assign,” he said, adding, “If it comes to protecting the students, it is something we will do.”

-Andrea Nurko contributed to this report.

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