Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Privacy and the Social Security Number

It is almost a fundamental tenant of the proponents of online security that you never divulge your social security number at the risk of having your identity stolen and your life destroyed. Quoting from the Social Security Administration's (SSA) article "Identity Theft And Your Social Security Number"
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. A dishonest person who has your Social Security number can use it to get other personal information about you. Identity thieves can use your number and your good credit to apply for more credit in your name. Then, they use the credit cards and do not pay the bills. You may not find out that someone is using your number until you are turned down for credit or you begin to get calls from unknown creditors demanding payment for items you never bought.
Have you ever wondered if this type of statement were true or not? The SSA goes on to state,
Your number is confidential

The Social Security Administration protects your Social Security number and keeps your records confidential. We do not give your number to anyone, except when authorized by law. You should be careful about sharing your number, even when you are asked for it. You should ask why your number is needed, how it will be used and what will happen if you refuse. The answers to these questions can help you decide if you want to give out your Social Security number.
Would it surprise you to know that my social security number was my U.S. Army identification number for eight years in the Army? Would it further surprise you to know that my social security number was also my student identification number at the University of Utah and appeared on almost every form I filled out for the University for six years? We used to have gas mask drills in the Army where we would put on a gas mask, go into a tent filled with tear gas, remove the gas mask while in the tear gas filled tent, yell out our ID number (social security number) and then purge our gas mask, put it back on and then we could leave the tent. How confidential, don't you think?

Would it also surprise you to know that I could find out your social security number in about five minutes using programs on my computer, right from my home if I wanted to do so? Do you think that is confidential?

I will say one thing, I further challenge the statement about identity theft being "one of the fastest growing crimes in America." It isn't true. In fact, it is misleading to say that it is.

Back to social security numbers. The specter of identity theft hangs over the entire genealogical community as a constant, if only in the background, concern. All that said, it is really bad idea to publicly record social security numbers of living people in your genealogy especially if you plan to share it online.

But what does your social security number have to do with privacy? Absolutely nothing. After all, it is a government issued number and virtually everyone in the United States (here legally) has one. So how did social security numbers get involved in the idea of privacy?

So how many times or under what circumstances have social security numbers been used in "identity theft?" The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is one of the agencies that deal with identity theft. Here is the FTC's definition of identity theft:
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.
So how "serious" is identity theft? How much of what is defined as "identity theft" is nothing more or less than stolen credit card numbers? How much of what is defined as "identity theft" What does identity theft have to do with privacy? All of these questions are surprisingly relatively difficult to answer.

Let's go to the Uniform Crime Reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The 2011 Preliminary Report does not have a category for "Identity Theft" as such. So that doesn't help. So where did the Social Security Administration get their information about identity theft being one of the fastest growing crimes in America? Note, it is extremely important to get identity theft statistics from somewhere other than companies who are selling some kind of identity theft protection. I have found that uniformly those sites selling some kind of protection scheme have blatantly inaccurate or misleading statistics about the incidence of identity theft.

So we go to the 2012 Statistical Abstract: Crimes and Crime Rates of the U.S. Census Bureau.You will have to dig pretty deep because most of the schedules to not show identity theft as a separate category. But there is a category for Fraud and Identity Theft--Consumer Complaints by State. Guess what? The statistics are not based on criminal convictions, but on unverified complaints reported by consumers. In 2010 there were 250,854 reported identity thefts in the entire U.S. which includes non-U.S. residents and people who did not report a residence. In 2009 there were 795,000 motor vehicle thefts in the U.S. The rate per 100,000 population for motor vehicle thefts in 2009 was 259 per 100,000 individuals. The rate in 2010 for reporting identity theft was 81.2 per 100,000 population. The rate reported in 2009 was 86.8 per 100,000. In 2008 the rate was 99.6 per 100,000 population. Rather than being a dramatic increase, reported incidents of identity theft are in a rather steep decline.

What is even more difficult is to try and separate the credit card number thefts from the overall statistics included in the general category of identity theft. What is apparent is that many other types of crime, such as motor vehicle theft, are much more prevalent than all of the different crimes included in identity theft.

Now, this brings us back to social security numbers and privacy. It is extremely difficult to get an accurate and clear picture of the risk of loss due to the mis-use of a social security number. But most reports, accurate or otherwise, admit that somewhere around half of all of the reported incidents of identity theft occur because of stolen wallets and physical documents.

As a genealogist there are certain things that are evident.
  1. It is not a good idea to record social security numbers or other personal information about living people.
  2. It is a good idea to keep track of your personal belongings and report stolen or lost credit cards, driver's license or other documents immediately.
  3. It is a really good idea not to become overly concerned about the risk of identity theft as compared to locking your car and house. Practicing good personal security should include avoiding situations where you could be victimized including making it too easy for criminals to obtain your personal information. But all this is a matter of perspective.


  1. Interesting post, James. I'm extremely vigilant about my SSN, but so many businesses already have access to it. I think an acquaintance had her identity stolen when an employee used her SSN to get a credit card; she was eventually caught. I've had my identity stolen, but from a bank account number and later a credit card number - not lost or stolen, but somehow obtained in another state.

  2. What kills me is all the paranoia by state legislatures about public documents -- birth and death certificates and the like.

    What self-respecting identity thief is going to spend from $9 to $20 to obtain ONE measly document when he can take a good dumpster dive and come up with information on thousands of people?

    It's just absurd!