So Long, Social Security Numbers

In an age where the next major data security breach seems to be lurking just around the corner, or perhaps has already happened and we just don’t know about it yet, it’s refreshing to hear talk of sunsetting the archaic social security number as a universal identifier for US citizens. While it should come as no surprise, with cybersecurity at the forefront of international headlines, and regular password-update requirements all but ubiquitous with online accounts, the onus has been largely on the individual to vigilantly guard their own digital information. At the heart of this information lies a single, 9 digit identifier meant to last a lifetime – big red flag.

The call to replace the social security number with a system inherently more secure is not a new one. But the discussion has been reignited in light of recent high-profile breaches of sensitive personal data; breaches that have affected nearly half of the US population and exposed over 100 million social security numbers. And the call is now ringing from the highest levels of government with the President’s cybersecurity advisor leading the charge. Politics aside, this is clearly something that anyone can get behind.

Now to the question of implementation. Certainly, the task of replacing a system, which has been in place since the 1930’s and has nearly a half-billion entries, will be no small feat. On top of that there’s currently no consensus on exactly how to replace it. But the ultimate solution will almost certainly take a digital turn, presenting an interesting challenge for policy makers and computer scientists alike. Taking a page out of classic cryptography, a leading proposal is to utilize a public-private key scheme similar to how much of our online existence is already being safeguarded from criminals and prying eyes. While we’re surely a long way from seeing the end state of a SSN-free world, it will be certainly interesting, and potentially profitable, to see if and how this all plays out.