University readies for Social Security number phase-out

Students may be assigned randomly generated identification numbers as early as January as part of GW’s plan for a campus-wide reduction of the use of Social Security numbers as a means of identification.

University officials said the project, which has been in the works for several years, will be completed by July 2006, enabling students to access Banner , library databases and other University systems without using a Social Security number. Although the use of the government-issued numbers won’t be completely phased out, administrators said they hoped the move would lessen the risk of identity theft for GW community members.

“There are obvious reasons for this change,” said Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman. “People are literally stealing personal information and using it for financial advantages.”

In 2004, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg estimated the change would cost GW $3 million, but Alexa Kim, executive director of Information Systems and Services, said the University now believes it can convert its identification system for “significantly less money.”

The project, dubbed Gwid, is still under development, and officials have yet to determine a complete list of systems that will use the new numbers, said Bill Mayer, associate University librarian for information technology. Because of federal law, the University will still require the use of Social Security numbers for students receiving financial aid and employees.

By obtaining personally identifiable information, criminals can fraudulently open new lines of credit or take out loans. Two years ago, a GW physics professor inadvertently posted student Social Security numbers and names on a publicly accessible Web site, and since then The Hatchet has found several instances in which students’ Social Security numbers were left unsecured. Students put their Social Security numbers on everything from test books to attendance sheets, a practice that will presumably be stopped once they get random numbers.

“By implementing the new ID, we are able to more fully protect the ways in which (Social Security numbers) are stored in University systems,” Mayer wrote in an e-mail this week. “Our goal is to protect this information for all community members.”

D.C. claims more identity theft complaints per person than anywhere else in the country, according to a 2002 Federal Trade Commission report. The report also found that 26 percent of identity theft victims were between the ages of 18 and 29.

In January 2005, more than 32,000 students and faculty members were made susceptible to identity theft at George Mason University when hackers gained access to the University’s computer system and were able to see private information that may have included Social Security numbers.

“The George Mason incident got people’s attention. It’s important to be prudent and to pay attention to the news, there is no point in waiting until something happens (to change the University’s ID system),” Lehman said.

In 1999, the University of Illinois began to limit the use of Social Security numbers on campus, but the switch took five years to fully execute because it required a replacement of the school’s computer systems.

Last January, Penn State University completed its transition to randomly generated nine-digit identification numbers. The school’s identification cards display the new number, while a person’s Social Security number is encoded in the card’s magnetic strip. GW community members can already request the replacement of their Social Security number with a randomly generated number. The form that authorizes this change is available on the fall semester schedule of classes and in the Registrar’s Office.

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