Committee will investigate Social Security use

Administrators are forming a task force to explore alternatives to using Social Security numbers as the University’s means of identifying students.

The move comes on the heels of a Federal Trade Commission report naming D.C. the city with the greatest amount of consumer fraud and the 18-29 age group as the most at-risk demographic for identity theft.

The taskforce is assembling its membership from across all major GW constituent groups, including students. William Mayer, associate University librarian for information technology, and Kerry Washburn, director of administrative applications for Internet Security Systems, will chair the group.

Last November, a GW professor inadvertently drew attention to the issue after posting students’ Social Security numbers on a Web site that was accessible through Google. The posting came weeks after Hatchet editors discovered pages of students’ Social Security numbers in an unsecured New Hall closet.

Since last year’s two incidents, the Student Association has called for an abandonment of the current system, and privacy watchdog groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center have asked all universities to stop using Social Security numbers.

Mayer said the task force would identify all of the University’s current uses of Social Security numbers and propose alternatives that will increase privacy and security. A major proposal under consideration is the conversion to a system that identifies students by random, computer-generated numbers.

“We have already begun research on other schools’ conversion to a new identifier,” said Mayer, who cited the University of Illinois and Penn State as two schools that have made a similar transition.

Mayer said the task force hopes to complete its research by the end of the academic year and present its findings and recommendations to senior GW officials. University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg will be responsible for making the final decision on whether to alter the current policy.

Trachtenberg has previously said that while he wants administrators to look into making a possible switch to random IDs, any change would cost “several million dollars.” A similar change by Northern Illinois University cost $8 million.

“The use of Social Security numbers cannot be entirely eliminated,” said Gerry Kauvar, Trachtenberg’s special assistant. “We’re concerned about identity theft for students, faculty and staff … the problem is that we need to find a secure way to crosswalk between (Social Security numbers) where we must use them and other numbers used for identification.”

Kauvar noted that the University would have to continue using Social Security numbers when dealing with financial aid and other government forms.

Chris Jay Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, argued that there is an urgent need for all universities to eliminate reliance on Social Security numbers.

“Universities who use Social Security numbers place their students at risk of identity theft, and those institutions should end that practice,” he said. “The Social Security number is the key to your identity … it is virtually impossible to engage in identity theft without a Social Security number.”

Once a person’s Social Security number is stolen, the remainder of his personal information – including birth date, address and telephone number – can easily be found on the Internet, Hoofnagle said.

An FTC report indicated that the number of identity fraud-related cases is on the rise. In 2001, the commission received 86,212 complaints of alleged identity theft; in 2003, that number more than doubled to 214,905.

Some students seemed concerned that their Social Security numbers are being left unprotected but admitted that the associated risks do not often come to their attention.

“You have to put it on everything,” said junior Lauren Krieger, who also said she feels particularly vulnerable writing her Social Security number on exams and class work. “You’re really trusting the professors to protect it, and they’re not … I really prefer that they shred documents, but they’re not doing that.”

Others said they are not particularly concerned about using their Social Security number at GW but said switching to a random ID system couldn’t hurt.

“I never really think about (providing my Social Security number) when I do it,” junior Karishma Pradhan said. She suggested that switching to a random ID system would be a worthwhile use of tuition dollars.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.