Okay, so maybe social security numbers are still useful for a few things, such as the purpose for which they were originally intended. The U.S. government first began issuing an SSN to each citizen in 1936 as a means of keeping track of everyone’s work history and qualifications for eventual social security payouts. Since then, however, social security numbers have also evolved into a seriously questionable means of establishing identity.

The flaws in the top-secret ID number plan

Recently, Capital One announced it had a confession to make and it wasn’t a good one. It seems that not so long ago, a hacker somehow managed to sneak into the company’s system and access the personal details of around 106 million credit card users. During the course of the massive hack, the social security numbers of 140,000 people were stolen. Great.

These days, such news seems to be announced far too often, especially considering that our society has come to rely on the SSN as a reliable means of establishing identity. Unfortunately, Capital One is not alone in the history of such embarrassing data breaches, as their announcement comes right on the heels of the whole Equifax hack fiasco. In case you missed that one, Equifax had a similar data hack in 2017 that put the SSNs of over 140 million people at risk. Earlier this year they announced an apology in the form of a $700 million settlement.

Even without the threat of hackers, however, most people’s social security numbers are far from a well-kept secret. Though it may be tempting to think you’re one of the few people who knows your’s, consider how many times you’ve handed it over to an employer, a bank, a doctor, or even used it to apply for an apartment rental or loan. Realistically, the very notion of anyone’s social security number being solid proof of their identity has become a bit laughable at this point. With identity theft currently one of the highest rising crimes in America, a stolen SSN can result in a thief’s ability to do anything from destroying your credit to stealing your identity.

America’s tricky identity problem

During a 2017 House of Representatives hearing, the root of the problem was addressed in a startling revelation by Mariana LaCanfora, the acting deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Retirement and Disability Policy. “The SSN and SSN card were never intended, nor do they serve, as identification,” she insisted. “We strongly encourage other agencies and the public to minimize their use.” Oops. Unfortunately, we can all probably agree that at this point that ship has sailed.

In fact, the government has long admitted that relying on social security numbers as a means of establishing ID has become a questionable practice at best and a dangerous one at worst. As far back as 2007, the Office of Management and Budget actually called for agencies to start coming up with a more reliable system.

“I think it’s really clear there needs to be a change,” White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce remarked at the recent Cambridge Cyber Summit. “It’s a flawed system. If you think about it, every time we use the Social Security number you put it at risk.” So, the good news is that at least everyone seems to be on the same page as far as the realization that things need to change.

Identification of the future

Then why haven’t we traded in the SSN for a better option? In short, because we’re not yet sure exactly what the better option is, much less how to put it into place. Though the government has yet to land on an alternate means of ID, several possible solutions have been tacked to the drawing board.

One idea that’s been thrown around is the use of biometric identification, such as the fingerprint scans often used on smartphones. Other thoughts include digital Social Security cards with numbers that change frequently so that no one is stuck with the same one for too long. Another potential plan involves combining such tactics with other means of identity verification, such as a knowledge test of unique facts or questions that only the real person in question would know.

As things stand now, it may be some time before the government hashes out a new plan and gets it up and running. In the meantime, it’s important to take precautions against identity fraud while we’re still stuck with the old SSN solution. Here are a few quick tips to help you safeguard your identity in this crazy, modern world:

  • Look into a service like Lifelock that will monitor your information for signs of identity fraud. They’ll provide insurance and immediate assistance in the case of identity theft.
  • Leave your social security card at home. Don’t ever carry it around in your wallet, as it’s the last thing you want to have to worry about ever having stolen or misplacing.
  • Create an account on SSA.gov. Even if you never use it, you’ll keep a thief who has stolen your SSN from being to create one themselves in order to redirect funds.
  • Shred any bills or documents that might contain personal information before you throw them out.
  • Opt out of all those loan and credit card offers you always get in the mail by visiting OptOutPrescreen.com. In just a few minutes, you can electronically file a request to make sure that your name and information isn’t included on lists used to prescreen for credit offers. This will also stop all that pesky junk mail that may or may not contain sensitive information you have to rip up before throwing in the trash.