Tom Purcell: Time to retire Social Security numbers |
Tom Purcell, Columnist

Tom Purcell: Time to retire Social Security numbers

Tom Purcell

Like most people, I didn’t think much about my Social Security number — until I got a bizarre call from a total stranger.

“Hello?” I answered suspiciously, because I saw “restricted” on my smartphone screen.

“Hello, Tom.”

“Who is this? What do you want?”

“Who I am isn’t important. I called to thank you for working hard and paying your bills on time. Your excellent credit was just what I was looking for when I borrowed your Social Security number.”

“You WHAT?”

“It was easy, Tom. Maybe I sifted through your garbage, or bought it from a hacker, or got you to click on a link in a fake email that gave me access to your computer. Opportunities to get Social Security numbers are endless these days!”

“What did you do with mine?”

“I went on a spending spree, Tom! See, when Social Security numbers were created in the 1930s, they had one and only one job: to enable the Social Security Administration to track the lifetime earnings of individual workers.”

“What’s your point?”

“Just that Social Security numbers were never intended to become personal identification numbers — but that’s what happened! Wired says they’re now used ‘both as identifiers to link people to their data, and as authenticators to prove that people are who they claim.’”

“So, once you get my Social Security number, you can access my records, assume my identity — and commit fraud.”

“You catch on fast, Tom. Social Security numbers now have dozens of congressionally approved uses. You can’t drive, vote, apply for a job, buy a new cellphone or get a credit card without one. Once I had yours, I was off to the races!”

“Ah, your spending spree.”

“I spent thousands of dollars with credit cards in your name, Tom! I’m sitting in a new Jacuzzi, sipping 20-year-old bourbon and talking to you on a new smartphone!”

“You dirty ROTTEN …”

“Whoa, Tom — it’s nothing personal! I’ll be doing this to someone else tomorrow. And every day until the Social Security number is replaced by modern personal-identification methods.”

“You’d hate that, wouldn’t you?”

“I sure wouldn’t like biometric security processes based on unique voice characteristics or your eye’s iris or retina pattern. I’m already not fond of smartphones that need a fingerprint to unlock.”

“Sounds more secure to me.”

“It’s good for me that America’s behind, Tom. I read in Forbes that in Estonia, which uses a cryptographic-number approach, ‘every citizen is issued a smartcard (and optional secure mobile SIM) tied to a public key infrastructure that can be used to securely identify the user to most government services as well as conduct any number of business transactions.’ ”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure the United States will come up with a replacement for Social Security numbers soon!”

“But Tom, there are all those worries about privacy considerations. Americans want a new approach that would make it easier for individuals to keep government officials and others from tracking their activities.”


“Any change will be a massive effort too, Tom, affecting millions of people! The government will have to lead. The Trump administration has ordered federal departments to explore alternatives. Congress needs to hold hearings to move things along. That’s GREAT news for me, Tom!”

“How so?”

“Because by the time our politicians stop calling each other names long enough to address a real challenge like this, I’ll be a VERY rich man — thanks to fine, upstanding citizens like you!”

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at

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