It's Time To Get Rid Of Social Security Numbers

On Dec. 1, 1936, government administrator Joe Fay walked over to a stack of cards in his Baltimore office, plucked the first piece of paper off the top and made a historic announcement.

Written on the card was the name of John David Sweeney Jr., a 23-year old shipping clerk from New Rochelle, N.Y. By having his name announced, Sweeney was the first record entered into a new government program called “Social Security.”

Along with Sweeney's entrance into the program came an identifying number (055-09-0001) that would allow him to collect his Social Security benefits when he retired. Ironically, Sweeney was a Republican who didn't think much of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, although he admitted he favored Social Security. But he would die in 1974 at age 61 without collecting any of the benefits he had accrued over the course of his working life.

From Sweeney on, Americans would be issued a unique number that would match them up with their Social Security benefits. But over the years, those Social Security numbers have morphed into something completely different; they have now essentially become every American's national identification number, wreaking havoc on personal security and privacy.

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Thus, while technology has rendered Social Security numbers obsolete, new advances may hold the key to replacing them. Anyone who's bought an iPhone in the past year can see how quickly biometrics have progressed; fingerprint and face recognition are now standard for unlocking electronic devices. Given last year's Equifax breach, your Instagram account currently appears to be more secure than your credit history.

With the enormous power credit-reporting agencies have over our personal information, Congress should move quickly to force agencies such as Equifax, Experian PLC and TransUnion to modernize their authentification procedures. America's government safety-net record-keepers have done the hard work for these agencies for too long; now it's finally time for Social Security numbers to retire.

Tribune Content Agency

Christian Schneider is a Journal Sentinel columnist and blogger.


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