The Casual Display of SSN

I was home today because it was Veterans Day and I went up to the attic today to fetch our son’s rocking horse, Daylight.

Daylight is 26 years old and shows his age. His mane is half gone, his tail completely gone. His foot pegs are dog-chewed  on the ends. He needs badly to be curried and Spruced-up a bit (despite being Yellow Pine) because in June he will be pressed into service for a second generation.

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While in the attic and sorting through a few boxes (a tribute to my ADHD) I ran across the folders with my collection of diplomas and awards from my time in the Army. I thought about tweeting photographs of some as an acknowledgement of my time in service….until I realized that all but two of had my name and Social Security Number.

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And then I started to about all the officers and NCOs I knew with such certificates, diplomas, and awards, framed and proudly displayed on their “I Love Me Wall.”

In the 1980s our use of the SSN was downright casual. In the Army, we used them for everything. When I was the company NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical warfare defense) NCO for the company, I knew most of the guys’ SSNs by heart since they were printed on the assignment tags for each of the protective masks. The SSN was everywhere, except when we used roster numbers (basic training, air assault school, for example).

My dog tags had my name, religious preference, blood-type, and yes, my SSN. Of course, it was logical to use the SSN. It is of course, a federal number, and so why create and issue a new number to keep track of people in a federal organization? And this was likely at the core of thinking that every other organization started relying on use of the SSN. If someone has already issued an ID number to an individual, and that ID has some assurances of being uniquely assigned, and has the imprimatur of the federal government, why use anything else?

I guess it is a good thing that identity fraud was much less a problem when I was young. Or at least a different kind of problem. It was easy enough to fake an identity just by saying you were someone else and it surprisingly easy to get valid a copy of someone else’s birth certificate. It’s much harder now. It’s almost impossible, even as a grandparent to get a grandchild’s birth certificate without a half-dozen signatures.

On the other hand, it really hasn’t been all the long since the Commonwealth banned printing SSNs on envelopes, or IDs. Without looking it up, it seems like it has only been about 15 years. The thing is really this. We just now starting to figure out privacy, its protection, how data connect to an individual, and how an individual connects to the data-oriented world. While we are doing this, while we are trying to protect our ID numbers of various and sundry issuances, there are scores or hundreds of data scientists working out ways to connect us to our data without those ID numbers.

I’m beginning to wonder if real privacy is little more than an illusion and a misplaced belief that we actually know the organizations that know who we are.