Personal Privacy in an Information Society. Concern About the Use of The Social Security Number

07/12/1997

The clear need of organizations to identify and authenticate individuals and records accurately, both internally and in the course of exchanging personal information with other organizations, is seldom questioned. The propriety of certain widely used systems of labelling individuals and records, however, is hotly debated in this country. Much of this debate today centers on what uses of the Social Security number are appropriate. To understand the Commission's recommendations in this area, the arguments advanced against the use of the SSN as a widely used identifier and authenticator must be explored.

Some individuals simply resent being identified by a number rather than a name, and of these, most seem uncomfortable with the use of the SSN across the board for both personal and record identification and authentication. The case was stated by one of the Commission's correspondents, who implored the Commission to "prevent us from becoming our Social Security numbers." This concern seems to reflect the feeling that to label a person by a number rather than by a name is dehumanizing. It is probably safe to assume that these people do not object specifically to the Social Security number, but to any widely used numerical label. After all, the telephone companies incurred much wrath when they changed from name to number labels for exchanges.

In most cases, however, opposition to the use of the SSN appears to arise from a fear that if several organizations possess an individual's SSN, the ability with which these organizations can exchange information about the individual will be greatly facilitated. This kind of opposition is directed primarily to the use of the SSN for record, as opposed to personal, identification and authentication. Some individuals feel that information exchanges will not always be beneficial to them-particularly because some kinds of information should not be available to certain decision makers and thus these exchanges should not be encouraged. Such concern is also related to a more general feeling that if the SSN is used to facilitate unconstrained exchanges of information about people, dossiers about individuals may be created that will follow them throughout life. Thus, an individual's capacity to "make a fresh start" in life would be hampered, and the processes of social control of individuals would become increasingly threatening.

Several of the Commission's correspondents expressed this general fear. For example, one asserted that "tile extensive use of this single number by all government agencies allows unscrupulous individuals within the government to easily obtain all the information in a file concerning an individual." Another objected to the collection of SSNs by credit grantors and life insurance companies because he opposed the ease with which ".. . one computer can `interface' with another guy's computer and swap information."

Again, there is no evidence to suggest that any unique aspect of the Social Security number is peculiarly objectionable. Presumably, any other label-except a name-that is used as widely would arouse the same opposition and, if each individual had a unique name for life, used by him alone, it is conceivable that names also would become a target of concern.