GW looks to replace SSNs with random IDs

University officials are looking into abandoning GW’s longstanding practice of using Social Security numbers to identify students.

Officials said they have yet to commit themselves to a change and cautioned that they are only investigating the feasibility of a switch. A change would likely involve assigning students randomly generated numbers that would replace Social Security numbers as an everyday means of identification.

The decision to investigate a possible switch to random ID numbers comes several months after Student Association members called for a change and the accidental posting of scores of students’ numbers on a University Web site.

“There’s some interest in it,” University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said of a possible change. “The SA has proposed it, and we took a quick look. It would cost a couple million dollars, so we decided it was worth taking a long look.

“We still don’t have a completed study of it,” Trachtenberg added. “It’s far more complicated than it sounds and potentially much more expensive.”

Cissy Baker, a member of GW’s Board of Trustees, said at a board meeting earlier this month that the University is studying several other schools’ transition to a random ID system.

“There are not enough firewalls on earth to keep someone from hacking into a system and stealing students’ Social Security numbers,” said Baker, who chairs the board’s Student Affairs committee.

Baker said she did not know when the study would be completed.

“There’s a specialized timeline, watching a couple of other universities to see how successful it will be and study what company they use,” said Baker in an interview following the Feb. 6 board meeting.

In another interview last week, Baker said the board was committed to looking at ways to reduce students’ exposure to identity theft.

“The students have brought it to our attention on the board and we’ve brought it to the administration’s attention,” Baker said. “They’ve been empathetic to the situation and are looking at how to get it fixed.”

Even if GW issues random IDs, students’ Social Security numbers will still be needed for federal financial aid forms and health and taxes, said Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services.

The University Registrar also uses Social Security numbers for class and major registration, and students are often required to put their nine-digit code on test booklets and housing forms.

“They ask for it in every instance when you sign up for a club or take a trip,” senior Laurie Graham said. “It feels like I’m using it a lot, especially on the Web.”

Chernak said GW has budgeted money for a study of other universities’ ID systems, and that officials would also be looking at how to reduce the risk of identity theft.

In November, more than 90 physics students’ Social Security numbers were posted on a Web site that was accessible through Google. University officials shut down the site upon being informed of the security breach.

SA President Kris Hart commended the University for exploring a possible change to a random ID system. He said the board has made the issue a “high priority.”

But he also criticized GW for failing to provide him with a usable random ID number to students upon request. Currently, students can go to the University Registrar and get a random ID number, a process that Hart, who switched his ID number, said “doesn’t work.”

University Registrar Dennis Geyer could not be reached for comment as of press time.

With identity theft on the rise, colleges across the country are switching to random ID number systems. In the last five years, about 27.3 million Americans have been the victims of identity theft, according to a November study released by the Federal Trade Commission.

“The education institution generally considers it a best practice now to stay away from Social Security numbers,” said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a D.C. research institution.

“It’s not a best practice … it exposes people to risk,” Hoofnagle added.

Hoofnagle said some universities have phased in a random ID system, issuing new numbers to incoming students. Others have implemented a system in “one swoop.”

He said each university should consider its size and financial resources when making the switch.

At Jacksonville State University in Alabama, next year’s freshman class will receive random ID numbers. Officials said they are taking a “proactive” approach to identity theft.

“We were concerned that it would happen one day given the overabundant use of Social Security numbers (at the school),” said Don Killingsworth, Jacksonville’s associate vice president for academic affairs.

He added, “Identity theft is out there and we don’t want to be the cause of it.”

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