Imagine that you are buying a new set of wheels with cash. Being a cash transaction there is no need to negotiate loans or check credit; you have the money in your wallet. Usually, vendors are delighted when handed a thick wad of bills but we are living in unusual, no depraved, times. Before the dealer takes your wad you will probably be asked for your Social Security Number. WTF you think! It’s a cash transaction; why must government stick its inept grasping tentacles in your business?
Of course if you are financing a set of wheels, applying for a mortgage, negotiating a rental, submitting a job application, or buying a fricking big screen TV, you will be asked, over and over again, for your Social Security Number. Why are so many tiresome busybodies obsessing over nine measly, easily forged, digits? Well, cowboys and girls, the Social Security Number has morphed into a general-purpose personal tracking identifier. Busybodies covet this number because once they have it they can:
- Check your credit history.
- See if you have ever been in prison.
- Determine if you owe money.
- Track your movements from one state or city to another.
And god knows what else!
When Social Security was setup in the 1930s paranoid right wingers darkly warned that Social Security Numbers (SSNs) would be used to track people and ultimately infringe their freedoms. Silly ancient right-wingers: who really cares that they were completely right about SSNs? Only criminals, and evil people with things to hide, care about the widespread abuse of Social Security Numbers. If you believe this moronic twaddle please leave your Social Security Number in a comment on this blog. You can trust me! I would never abuse your number.
Now if you’re a big government guy or gal you will loudly assert that it’s perfectly acceptable for the government to maintain some identifier that links you to your Social Security account. On this I agree, some identifier is required, but Social Security Numbers are probably the worst possible way to do this. The ideal Social Security “Number” would:
- Unambiguously link you to your Social Security Account.
- Be impossible to counterfeit or fake.
- Be useless for any other purpose.
The idiotic nine digit scheme used for Social Security Numbers completely fails all three of these tests.
Let’s start with unambiguous linking. News flash: your Social Security Number does not uniquely identify you. There are many reasons for SSN duplicates with identity theft being the leading cause. Is it fair to blame SSN numbers for criminal abuse? Yes, you dumb fucks! Identity systems must operate on the bedrock principle that people are liars, cheats, and disgusting defecating naked apes. Always assume the worst of your fellow apes; you will still be disappointed. Good identifier schemes make it impossible to generate duplicates regardless of how thoroughly evil or incompetent people are. Social Security Numbers naively assume we are good people. This is asking for it.
How hard is it to counterfeit or fake Social Security Numbers? It’s so damn easy you can go to this website and push a button. While it’s unlikely that nine random digits will form a valid SSN it’s clearly not rocket science to concoct plausible SSNs. Good identifier keys are unavoidably unique. There are many high-quality unique key algorithms. SSNs are crappy keys; any database professional that advocated their use would be fired on the spot.
As for being useless for other purposes: here the failure is so complete, so total, and so absolute, that it’s hard to attribute it to mere government stupidity. I don’t blame the paranoid for thinking it was a clumsy backdoor scheme to label citizens for other purposes. Heh, even the official government Social Security Page brags that your SSN has “come to be used as a nearly universal identifier.” Anyone that contests this is an idiot. Every two-bit database out there has an SSN column in it. Many SSNs are still completely unencrypted; they’re begging software professionals like me to get into the identity theft business. Keep that in mind the next time some outfit asks for your SSN.
When you make a VISA, MasterCard or Apple Pay purchase with a “chipped card” a onetime transaction code is generated and mixed with your credit card number.1 This allows the central authority, VISA and MasterCard in this case, to verify your credit without creating a permanent number that is forever tied to your name. This scheme is vastly more secure than SSNs but falls short of high-quality cryptographic key schemes used in systems like Bitcoin. The QR code on this blog is a Bitcoin address with money in it. Try and steal my Bitcoin bitches! The point is there are sound ways of creating account links that do not invite abuse and tracking. So why the hell are we are still tolerating static, insecure, come and get it identity thieves, broken beyond repair, Social Security Numbers?
- One of the consequences of chipping credit cards is that it is no longer necessary to display the number on the card. You only need the number to interact with non-chipped devices. Eventually, people will figure this out and start asking for credit cards that do not display the number. I see a great advertising campaign in the future. “You can get our numberless smart card or their numbered dumb fuck card. What’s it going to be?”↩