Your Right to Privacy: A Basic Guide to Legal Rights in An Information Society

By Evan Hendricks; Trudy Hayden et al. | Go to book overview
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VI
Social Security Numbers

Is the Social Security number a universal identifier?

Not technically, but the Social Security number (SSN) is so widely used as an identifier by both government and private agencies that many people consider it to be a de facto national identifier. To be a true universal identifier, a label would have to be unique to each person: no more than one person would have a given number, and no person would have more than one number. A person would carry the same number throughout his life, and it would not be reused after his death. It would contain internal check features so that errors in transcription or communication could be detected easily. The SSN does not meet these criteria. Many people have more than one number. Some numbers have been issued to or used by more than one person. The SSN does not contain any internal check features, and it can be deliberately falsified or inadvertently misreported.1 But these technical deficiencies have not prevented widespread reliance on the SSN for authentication and identification purposes. The number is popularly accepted and treated as a universal identifier.

Why is a universal identifier a threat to the right of privacy?

The use of a common label to identify the records of individuals in many separate record systems makes it easier, cheaper, and therefore more practical to exchange, compare, and combine information among those various systems. This, in turn, makes it easier for government agencies and private organizations to trace any individual from cradle to grave and thus encloses each person ever more tightly in a "record prison," unable to escape the past or protect any aspect of his or her life from scrutiny. It must be emphasized that the absence of a universal identifier will not by itself prevent the pooling and linking of records, particularly with today's sophisticated computer technology, nor does the use of a universal identifier by itself cause record linking. The availability of

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