Officials plan to reduce use of Social Security numbers

Administrators are preparing for a University-wide reduction in use of Social Security Numbers as a means of identification. The use of Social Security numbers cannot be completely phased out, officials said, but they hope a reduction will lessen the risk of identify theft for student and employees.

A committee charged last fall with exploring a new system of identification numbers will release its report to senior University officials after this semester, Kerry Washburn, one of the group’s chairs, wrote in an e-mail. The committee will soon distribute a survey to GW offices that will determine what changes need to be made to facilitate the transition.

The threat of identity theft at GW is real because of the broad use of Social Security numbers, said Jay Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit organization offering free counseling to victims of the crime. Students put their numbers on everything from test books to attendance sheets.

By obtaining personally identifiable information, people can fraudulently open new lines of credit or take out loans. Last year a GW physics professor inadvertently posted student Social Security numbers and names on a publicly accessible Web site.

“All I really need to do is apply a Social Security number to a name to establish a credit file,” Foley said. “It’s a piece of cake.”

The committee’s survey seeks to find out how forms and computer processes should be modified to accommodate new identification numbers, Washburn said.

“The survey … is key to our being able to develop a strategy that will accomplish a conversion efficiently and effectively,” said Washburn, director of administrative applications for Information Systems and Services.

Possible alternatives to using Social Security numbers include a randomly generated number or an alphanumeric code. Washburn said the group has not projected costs for implementing either alternative. Last year, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said such a change would cost at least $3 million.

The transition to a different identifier for students, faculty and staff would not mean that the University will completely stop asking for and storing Social Security numbers, Washburn said.

“GW requires (Social Security Numbers) for tax-related processes, such as payroll and financial aid,” Washburn said. “But the conversion … would isolate collection and storage of (Social Security numbers) … thus increasing the protection of data from unauthorized access and use.”

D.C. is the city with the most identity theft complaints per person, according to a 2002 Federal Trade Commission report. The report also found that 26 percent of those reporting the crime were between the ages of 18 and 29. Students who think they may be the victim of identify theft should contact the Federal Trade Commission.

With $49 billion lost to identity theft this past year, Foley said that universities should be more careful with how they use Social Security numbers.

“Having a Social Security number in the records of the university, I can understand,” Foley said. “But having it as a general ID number is absolute foolishness.”

Many universities have already heeded such advice in converting their student identification numbers to randomly generated numbers.

Penn State University completed its transition to random nine-digit “PSU IDs” on Jan. 1, after a two-year process that coincided with a change of student identification cards. The university promoted its conversion through a colorful poster campaign.

The University of Illinois established its policy to limit Social Security number usage in 1999, but it took five years to fully implement the switch because it was accompanied by a replacement of their computer systems. Administrators found the conversion an arduous but necessary task to increase students’ privacy.

“This is a path everyone has to go down … it’s messy and there’s no silver bullet,” said Michael Corn, the University of Illinois’ director of Security Services and Information Privacy. “People have to accept the fact that this is work, and it’s work worth doing.”

Dartmouth University sophomore Michael Greene said that at his school, he only uses his Social Security number for financial and medical documents. Students use a random combination of five numbers and one letter for all other needs.

“I am certainly glad that we maintain separate student (identification) numbers,” Greene said. “I think it’s the duty of the university to offer its students the most basic protection possible.”

GW community members can already request the University to replace their Social Security number with a randomly generated number. Click here to open a copy of the form that authorizes this change. It is also available on page 96 of the spring semester’s schedule of classes and in the Registrar’s Office.

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