Social Security Numbers and privacy.
May 14, 2001 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Social Security Numbers and privacy. I refuse to give my number out whenever possible, but it is getting worse all the time. Thankfully I can still buy batteries and refuse to give Rat Shack my telephone number, and tell Toy R Us where to go when they ask for my zip, but this is frustrating. Wasn't this what people feared about having identification numbers in the first place?
posted by thirteen (39 comments total)
Oh yeah. My instructors always ask why I got a random ID number assigned to me at college, instead of using the SSN like everyone else.

It's actually illegal to ask you for your SSN unless you're dealing with the gov't or work for payroll stuff. It's not intended to be an ID number.
posted by SpecialK at 12:37 PM on May 14, 2001

My wife was asked to give a thumbprint at the bank when she tried to break a $100 bill! What the hell is going on? She refused of course. They told her it was proceedure, and would happen to her at any bank she tried to cash out a larger bill at.
posted by thirteen at 12:42 PM on May 14, 2001

Somewhere on line today I looked at an article that noted that social security number needed for driver's license and this was fairly easy to obtain by someone other than the license bureau once they were given it.
Increasingly the SS is being used as identification number. Learn from the gypsies. Have multiple numbers, give out fake numbers, addresses, etc. Might also come in handy for our next war.
posted by Postroad at 12:48 PM on May 14, 2001

I had a bank threaten to fingerprint me about a year ago - when I was trying to deposit a cashier's check into an account in that bank (was buying a car). I laughed out loud, and the teller looked hurt, like she hated to ask, but needed to anyhow. The person I was buying the car from tore into them verbally, and I managed to avoid being fingerprinted in order to deposit money. How completely absurd - why did this even happen?
posted by kokogiak at 12:57 PM on May 14, 2001

Well, is it businesses who are treating SSNs like ID numbers, or is it government?

When we enroll patients on to our clinical trial studies, SSN is purely opt-in; patients can and do routinely refuse to divulge it, and nobody at the NCI complains (besides, Canadians would have real troubles enrolling). In fact, once the SSN goes into the database, it is completely hidden from me and everyone else in the office (along with the patient's name, of course) except for three section heads who are allowed access to make name changes, fix spelling errors, etc.

And 13, that thumbprinting BS is the next wave. Almost all banks are phasing it in, from what I understand. Some are building (have built?) ATMs that use a retinal scan. (They supposedly even check for the pulsing action that denotes blood flow, so presumably you couldn't scoop out someone's eyes and hold them up to the scanner in order to hoover their cash.)
posted by Skot at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2001

There's nothing wrong with retinal scans or even thumbprints (as long as they don't expect you to roll your thumb around in black ink to do it). Having extra protection on our accounts is a good thing.

At Dixons and PC World they always ask my address. This, apparently, is to validate their 1 year warranty which comes on everything you buy.

I couldn't care less if they want to send me a brochure or some offers.. hey, it might even have something I want in it! (Junk mail is bad.. targeted brochures and offers are good)

Onto more worrying things though.. In the UK, it's actually a legality that they -must- take your address from you when you buy a television. Why? So they can whip your ass if you forget to pay your $120 a year TV Licence...
posted by wackybrit at 1:32 PM on May 14, 2001

Just lie. That's what I do. Besides, SSNs are the worst scam since Social Security. I am thinking about doing what a friend of mine did and getting a whole new identity just for such things.
posted by norm at 1:33 PM on May 14, 2001

It is actually illegal for anyone to ask for a social security numer for identification. We citizens should remind the nosy I.D. stealers of this law and shove it in their face. I give out fake addresses, fake birth dates, and fake social security numbers whenever possible.
posted by PatMcGroin at 1:35 PM on May 14, 2001

Actually, the comments about it being illegal for someone to ask for your social security number are no longer true. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s (I forget the exact timing), that part of the law was removed. It is now perfectly acceptable for anyone to ask for this number from you, but it is also perfectly acceptable for you to refuse.

See for more information.
posted by yarf at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2001

I had a clerk try to write down my social security number on a check I was writing, and when I balked, they said it was routine. Their manager was out. So I made them call their district manager while I stood there. The district manager yelled at the clerk, told them to take my check, and be done.

I opted out the next time I got my state issued identification for my social security number not to be printed on it, which you can do. And when a clerk asked me again, I just smiled and said no. They took it anyways.

(I use check cards now.)

I don't mind giving out zip codes and such. And Toys R Us I will give my phone number, but you can opt out from them selling it. The great thing about them is, they correlate it to a database, and will send you coupons. (Some of which are really good like $10 of $25 purchase and such.) But you have to be specific in telling them not to sell your number. (Heck, they have a database of them anyways).

I don't mind giving out some information, but I do draw the line on my SS#. Thats for the government and work, and nothing else. And some employers allow you to opt for a seperate identification number so the only ones who can access your SS# is payroll, other divisions and departments will only see your ID#.

And as for ATMs, retinal scanners are cool... but they have several drawbacks. Some, and I think I might inlcude myself until the technology is really proven well in a consumer field, might balk at having their eyes mapped. Second, what about your friend who says, "here is my ATM card...", they really can't say, "...and take my eye with you so you can access the funds."
posted by benjh at 2:02 PM on May 14, 2001

Just to clarify (I'm Mrs 13), I tried to cash a check at the issuing bank and they wanted my thumbprint. The teller actually rolled her eyes at me when I refused. Then as I left, after I refused and told her it was "ridiculous", she called a colleague over and they talked about me. I went to my bank and deposited it via the ATM but asked customer service and they, too, would have asked for a thumbprint because it was over $100 or something.

It's so in line with the whole 'guilty until proven innocent' reaction in service industries that's cropping up. Like how some stores make you present a receipt for goods you purchased before you can exit the premises. Truthfully, I understand that it's probably doing its job in keeping down fraud and costs (it could well be tied into the increased competition for decreasing margins) but with privacy eroding so subtly and consumers rolling with it when deos it stop?

Here's a blurb from the SS website. Basically this text says there are more restrictions on the government asking you for yournumber than for private businesses.

This website says that:
For the first few decades that SSN cards were issued, they carried the admonition: "Not to be used for Identification." Unfortunately there was never any law passed instituting this as a policy.
posted by lowkey at 2:04 PM on May 14, 2001

I'm usually happy to give out my phone number: 382-5968. Heck, I give it with a smile.
posted by frykitty at 2:12 PM on May 14, 2001

Lowkey -- great point about being guilty until proven innocent at a lot of places. I had an experience a while ago where my bank (BoA) screwed up and canceled my check card. They took absolutely no blame, and in fact implied that it was my mistake. Fine, whatever.

But before I found out that the card had been shut down, I tried to pay for my lunch. And because it wouldn't go through, and because I had no cash on me, security was immediately called and I was followed through the mall for an hour while trying to get access to money somehow.

And I was trying to pay. I was doing everything in my power. But instead of trusting me, the customer, they assumed I was some sort of petty thief.

So a simple database error somewhere almost caused me to be sent to jail. I can just imagine what would happen if the MVA had made the same mistake and invalidated my driver's license. Or my SSN. I mean, it's just a click in a database, you know?
posted by benbrown at 2:44 PM on May 14, 2001

Interesting. I administer an OS/2 Diebold server that uses SSN's for everyone on campus. The numbers, while not visibly printed on the ID cards, are on the first magnetic track and used for meal plans, access, etc. I found that as pretty odd, but usage (misusage) of SSN's on college campuses must be a huge problem. Comedians have used the phrase, "The only thing I remember from college is my social" as that is basically what you need to give out verbally in order to recieve many services based on the legacy student information systems. Once we get PeopleSoft installed over here, we're moving over to random ISO (much like credit cards). But for those that continue to fall behind, SSN's are the only way to tell who's who in many of the current database systems.
posted by samsara at 2:48 PM on May 14, 2001

My university used to use SSN's as student ID numbers. It took a year and a change in their system to get me an alternate.

The page at gives some useful info on the possibility of using fake SSNs when asked, along with problems associated with doing so.

Me, my social security number is 987-65-4327.
posted by mrbula at 3:26 PM on May 14, 2001

This page points out an interesting legal wicket involving the use of SS numbers as student IDs at schools and the violation of privacy laws it probably entails:

"An argument can be made that if such a school displays students' SSNs on identification cards or distributes class rosters or grades listings containing SSNs, it would be a release of personally identifiable information, violating FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act]. However, many schools and universities have not interpreted the law this way and continue to use SSNs as a student identifier."

Ben - I remember reading your account of that awful day right after it happened. All of these digital age conveniences are fine until you step outside the expected track of behavior then it seems you're immediately treated with suspicion (as with your broken card, or with my thumbprint refusal). Surely there must be an alternative or is this the price we pay for the superstore landscape and the death of the neighborhood mom and pop? No one recognizes me, my reputation is meaningless.
posted by lowkey at 3:50 PM on May 14, 2001

Driver's License: random number.
Grocery store discount card: fictional name, wrong address (originally just wrong, now MIA due to knockdown and redevelopment), fictional phone number, and I always pay in cash.
Phone number: Just say no.
Store reciept inspection: I ALWAYS refuse. It's MY shit. I just PAID for it. You will not paw through MY shit. Made a scene in Wal-Mart with some 75 year-old anti-greater woman with exactly this scenario. I got out of there with my shit and without them going through it.

Never submit to this indignity. Ever.

I will pay for gas in my neighborhood on credit. I can live with marketers holding the shacking knowledge that I drive.

Vaguely related: I knew a girl that went through 4 or more SSN's and cards because they could never get her very long, very Greek and very wordy name right.
posted by NortonDC at 3:57 PM on May 14, 2001

Have had an SS# horror story quite recently... Apparenty, a few months back, someone managed to buy an ENTIRE Dell computer using my dad's number. One day, we just got the bill. You'd think it would be as easy as finding out where they shipped the computer to to find out what happened, but that's not the case. There's some BS about legality etc. so they couldn't just check where they sent it to. Anyways, Dell threatened to call our credit people and all this junk, and it was a huge process to get it cleared up. Just 2 days ago we got a letter from Dell apologizing for the confusion and whatnot.

I memorized my SS# maybe a year or two ago (I'm 17 right now) and have been using it a lot lately, especially with colleges and stuff. They ask for it on tests like the SAT, and just on reply forms to identify you. The registrar person at my school recommended we just give it to them to avoid any mix-ups because of mispelled names, middle names, etc... I just hope no one buys a computer with MY number... I have a lot less money to spare. :)
posted by swank6 at 4:02 PM on May 14, 2001

our university uses ssn as id, but you can change that. lisa did, and i assume it wasn't a problem, since it was all done before she even started here.

when they print them (for grades and so on) they only print like the last four numbers, i think.

how do you buy a computer with someone elses social security number, anyway? don't you need like a bank account or credit card number?
posted by dagnyscott at 4:41 PM on May 14, 2001

Store reciept inspection: I ALWAYS refuse. It's MY shit. I just PAID for it. You will not paw through MY shit. Made a scene in Wal-Mart with some 75 year-old anti-greater woman with exactly this scenario.

If you don't like Wal-Mart's security policies, or those of any other retail establlishment, may I respectfully suggest that you simply don't shop there. It is simplicity itself to note that the store employs a security checkpoint when you enter, turn on your heel, and leave in a huff without buying a thing. Those who would otherwise be forced to put up with your self-important posturing would surely appreciate being free of this nuisance.
posted by kindall at 4:52 PM on May 14, 2001

Boy, reading this thread shows that some people are really paranoid about their 'privacy'.

I couldn't care less about using a cellphone (so what if they know where I am?) or paying for groceries with a credit card.

Sure, you might not want to give thumbprints in the bank.. but quibbling with receipt checks and the 'privacy concerns' of your credit card? We don't live in a Hollywood blockbuster, y'know. Are you going to complain about CCTV use next?
posted by wackybrit at 5:03 PM on May 14, 2001

I am happily reminded of a funny scene in the little-loved Steve Martin movie "My Blue Heaven" in which, having been asked for his SSN by the FBI agent who is witness-relocating him, Martin's lifelong criminal starts giving digits, and giving digits, slower and slower, waiting for some indication that he's made up enough numbers.
posted by nicwolff at 5:22 PM on May 14, 2001

kindall, they don't tell you going in and there's nothing the least bit obvious about it (no signs, nobody in security-esque uniforms), so until it happens you won't know. Avoidance is not an option until it's happened in that store.

In fact, the randomness of their system was the turning point. The anti-greater "threatens" to get the manager. I heartily encourage her to do so. He tries to calm the situation by saying it's not an accusation, it is a random check. I specifiaclly ask if that means they don't need to check everyone. He says yes. Then I say "Well, godbye then," turn my back on them and leave with my shit unmolested.

And I never have returned to that store.

And combining "respectfully" with accusations of self-importance reflects more poorly on the speaker than the accused. Whatever self-importance I labor under will be self-evident. You needn't sully your own perfection by associating your holiness with my own wretched condition.

wackybrit - Americans do chafe at cctv. Courts in NY have denied the enforcibility of traffic tickets issued by automated photo systems because there is no opportunity for the accused to confront their accuser.

I don't think Americans will blithely accept the omnipresent police video surveillance that Brits have acquiesced to. And I think that resistance is healthy.
posted by NortonDC at 5:35 PM on May 14, 2001

Biometric identifiers are distinct from other PINs. If compromised you can't get issued a new thumbprint so easily.

Neal King wrote about his hassles at the bank (hosted on mine because his URLs keep moving around).
posted by holloway at 6:30 PM on May 14, 2001

Nine years ago, I was stabbed in the arm in broad daylight across the street from my home in Boston. The guy never said, "Give me your wallet or I'll hurt you," just came up behind me with a sharpened screwdriver, hit me hard, and ran off leaving me bleeding on the sidewalk. He got my briefcase that contained my wallet -- zero cash, driver's license, credit cards, and SS card. After a few hours in the ER, I was OK to go home -- no broken bones or severed tendons or nerves, miraculously -- and after a couple of months I was healing emotionally.

About two months later, the calls, letters, and bills started to arrive. To make a long story short, a woman was going around New England opening up instant charge accounts at major stores, using my name, address, and stolen cc #s. Even though I reported those cc's stolen the second I got out of the hospital, they are not tagged in any way as stolen, and she used those #s as "references" to get the instant charge accounts. She also altered my driver's license with her picture. She took my husband's title and company name off his business card and used it as job reference info. on several of the applications.

I have to say that the retail investigators (actually, one of them called me before I received any bills in the mail that would alert me to this), Boston detectives, credit bureau people, and everyone else I dealt with to clear up this problem were tremendously sympathetic. (swank6, it sucks that Dell threatened to ruin you dad's credit. That's just evil!) This woman charged over $20,000 in my name, and I was not liable for a dime. She was eventually arrested and charged, and it turns out she was a former Boston cop with a bad drug habit, and used my and other people's info (she was arrested with six people's IDs and stolen cc #s on her) to buy items easily fenced (in my case, sneakers, TVs, jewelry) to support her drug habit.

So yes, I have security measures in place on my credit report, have a funky driver's license number, and am glad that my university switched to a non-SS# registration system. My credit report is totally clean and in A+ shape thanks in part to people who helped me clean this mess up (it took well over a year and the file of documentation I have is about 6 inches thick). However, I have to say the most important piece of paper I have is the police report, which proved to everyone what had happened, and I'm sure was responsible for some of the sympathy I received.

My point is, as shitty an experience as this was, physically and mentally, one can come out OK on the other side. Though it does seem like people these days (the aforementioned bank tellers and rude people at Dell) are quicker to blame the victim...maybe it's a good thing this happened to me so long ago...
posted by sbgrove at 6:40 PM on May 14, 2001

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to go and buy yourself a little home office paper shredder from your local office supply store. One of the most popular ways identity theives get the information they use to forge identities and steal identites is to rifle through your trash can. Every time a credit card company sends you checks that you're supposed to use to transfer balances or make purchases, they are opening up the door for someone besides you to use them. The only way to void them is to shred them or tear them up so they cannot be used. I can't count how many times I've seen friends and relatives simply throw away credit card offers and enevelopes unopened. The amount of information in these is certainly enough for someone to use it in ways that you don't expect.

The only safe way to protect your identity from dumpster divers and trashcan riflers is to shred everything. All of that junk mail. All of those credit card numbers. Once you get into the habit of doing this, your identity and credit rating will be much safer than before.

I have only ever had my wallet stolen once. The credit card companies were very nice and sympathetic about it, surely because they deal with thousands of stolen and lost cards every day. The worst thing about having your wallet or purse stolen is that you have to painstakingly get new cards, new driver's license, new medical cards, etc. What a pain.
posted by camworld at 7:14 PM on May 14, 2001

I *never* give my Social Security number out, except for work. However, I have an interesting story about treating you guilty (which is good, I guess, in that Verizon actually protected my privacy assuming I wasn't me).

My family's car was stolen. A cell phone was in it. We assumed that the their had used the cell (he had, actually, to book some hotels). I called the cell phone company, and they couldn't tell me what calls had been made, because of privacy issues. My step-dad called (the phone is in his name) and they couldn't give him the calls, either. Only a subpeona from the police would get them to give us the numbers.

I'm also one of those people who doesn't like it when NGO's ask you what your race is, so I always leave that column blank too.
posted by Kevs at 8:49 PM on May 14, 2001

Well, Norton, I understand better why you "made a scene" if it was random. And I can sympathize a bit more.

In fact, if I could imagine any reason whatsoever to be bothered that some people might sometimes "paw through my shit" as I leave their store, I guess I might have been just as pissed off as you were. But I guess I just find that the prospect of an occasional minor inconvenience isn't sufficient to raise my ire, in light of the money I stand to save through such shoplifting-control measures.
posted by kindall at 9:30 PM on May 14, 2001

A member of my family suggests to me CONSTANTLY that I should get another SSN, by just going down to the local Social Security office and claiming that I've never worked before and need one now. I am of the belief that a) they'd never believe me since it's impossible to exist in normal society these days without having had one since birth (am I correct on that point?), and b) somehow they'd manage to connect me to myself anyway unless I went through the blatantly illegal process of getting the birth certificate of someone who was born around the same time as myself but quickly died. Yet she constantly tells me about all her acquaintances who have three or four different SSNs, all in their own names. Is this possible?
posted by aaron at 10:28 PM on May 14, 2001

I'm also one of those people who doesn't like it when NGO's ask you what your race is, so I always leave that column blank too.

Actually, I love that question. I answer differently every time.
posted by bliss322 at 5:43 AM on May 15, 2001

Buttle, Tuttle, yer all guilty, so who cares. Next.
posted by roboto at 8:06 AM on May 15, 2001

Unless the law unconditionally prevents distribution of the SSN even with your permission then it will have no important effect.

I originally hung up on this part of Steven's essay. Generally I am all about my wishes being carried out when it comes to things pertaining to me. If I want to release my information, that is my business, and the same feelings kick in that make me upset about the number being used without my permission. I thought about it a little more, and I am liking the idea. It makes me think of the number as a dog on a lease. Without something like this in place, someone will always make it procedurally advantageous for you to weaken and just let them spew your number out into the world. It might be easier to let your dog run free, but that doesn't mean it is the best thing for the dog, and just because people pressure you to take off the lease, does not mean you would do it without thinking about it.

Please forgive the horrible analogies.
posted by thirteen at 8:45 AM on May 15, 2001

WackyBrit seems to be the lone dissenter here. I am always mindful of being called paranoid, as I have a less than casual attitude towards other people. I don't think this is something to give in to. There is a point at which too much is asked just to conduct normal behavior. Nobody should have to give a DNA sample to buy stamps . I will give my signature, but not my fingerprint.

Time for the Franklin quote about trading liberty for safety yet?
posted by thirteen at 8:52 AM on May 15, 2001

I want everything about me hooked into my thumbprint. Or, better yet, a chip that's hidden under a fingernail.

Transfer contact info when hands are shaken. Plunk my finger into the hole at the cashier's desk to make a purchase. I want access to everything I can possibly store about me in my fingernail.

That being said, I want to have complete control over where that information goes. Cut off my finger, and the chip erases itself. I need to be able to turn off my handshake info transfer, and I need to be able to flag stuff as never transferrable.

Making personal data readily accessible but still secure shouldn't be as difficult as it is.
posted by cCranium at 10:04 AM on May 15, 2001

That wouldn't work for me as I have a nail biting habit. I'd have to keep getting new chips... Perhaps it could be embedded in my brain. If I lose that, I don't think I'm going to care much about my identity...
posted by fooljay at 10:24 AM on May 15, 2001

foljay, I bite my nails too, but the chip could be embedded a little closer to the bottom of the nail. Er, "bottom" if you hold your hand vertically. The part where the nail comes out of the flesh. :-)

And, really, it could go anywhere, I just like the thought of seeing a chip through my fingernail. I'm weird like that.
posted by cCranium at 12:10 PM on May 15, 2001

Norton said: I don't think Americans will blithely accept the omnipresent police video surveillance that Brits have acquiesced to. And I think that resistance is healthy.

Perhaps I missed out one important detail here. Most people wanted these CCTV systems to be fitted. Infact, many people wanted the 'speed cameras' on the highway to be fitted too.

I'm in support of CCTV systems (which are generally operated by independent bodies rather than the 'police' per se) because they are helping to cut down crime. The UK is absolutely rife with crime (excluding murder, there is more violent crime in the UK than the US per capita) and anything that helps without contravening my human rights is fine by me.
posted by wackybrit at 10:39 AM on May 16, 2001

Doh. I accidentally left an italic tag open on that last one. Closing it here, just in case ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 10:40 AM on May 16, 2001

Americans are not British. Americans are willing to trade some safety for liberty, apparently more than modern Brits. It's a values question, one that Americans answer differently from the British, and I endorse the American take on that balance, at least in comparison to the British one.

Something else to keep in mind is that even though it does not appear in the Constitution, the US Supreme Court has decided that Americans do possess a right to privacy. In fact, this right forms the foundation of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalising abortion in the US.
posted by NortonDC at 6:42 PM on May 16, 2001

« Older Jeb Bush did not have sex with that woman.   |   Something like a gallery Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments