Americans Didn't Always Keep Their Social Security Numbers Secret

Roundup
tags: Social Security, Social Security Numbers, Equifax



Olivia B. Waxman is a Staff Writer for Time Magazine. An honors graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Hamilton College, she grew up in New York City.

As fallout from the Equifax hack continues to raise questions about how to protect Americans' personal information, one option on the table is getting rid of Social Security numbers altogether.

"I feel very strongly that the Social Security number has outlived its usefulness," Rob Joyce, the White House's cybersecurity coordinator said at The Washington Post's Cybersecurity Summit on Tuesday. "Every time we use the Social Security number, you put it at risk." He made similar comments at the Cambridge Cyber Summit on Wednesday, while ex-Equifax CEO Richard Smith said basically the same thing during testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

To understand why the government's Social Security numbers can't be trusted anymore, it helps to understand how attitudes toward and uses of those nine-digit numbers have changed over the years.

At first, people would quite literally wear their personal information on their sleeves. Social Security numbers started being issued in 1936 to keep track of American workers' earnings for the purpose of calculating how much Social Security — then a new concept — they'd be entitled to when they retired. People proudly tattooed them to their arms, chests and backs or engraved them on the backs of their watches. The priority was keeping the number handy, not keeping it secret, and many Americans didn't quite understand the implications of each citizen having a personal ID number.

In one infamous incidence, Douglas Patterson, an executive at the E. H. Ferree company in Lockport, N.Y., thought it would be a good idea to, in 1938, enclose a fake Social Security card in the company's leather wallets to show that they could keep the valuable documents safe. The only problem was that the card displayed his secretary Hilda Schrader Whitcher's real Social Security number for the gimmick. Even though the piece of paper said "specimen" on it, thousands of confused Americans who bought the wallet at Woolworth's stores used the digits as their own. The FBI showed up at her house to tell her the news. "I can't understand it," she later said.




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