Social insecurity

The theft of a laptop in Minneapolis with 268,000 Social Security numbers confirms the worst fears of privacy advocates who warned us against the growing use of your number as a national identification card.

“They said it was only going to be for the purpose of tracking your Social Security account, and then slowly and quietly it was used for driver’s license records, now you have to give it to your bank, all government agencies use it as the identification number, so the original promise that it was only going to be used for one purpose was one of the great lies to the American people.”

That was 1996, when Evan Hendricks of the Privacy Times newsletter warned us about the insidious nature of the practice.

Back then, the fear was the government’s 1996 Illegal Immigration and Reform Responsibility Act, which requires states to get Social Security numbers from applicants. But far from protecting citizens against illegal immigrants, the practice has led to a privacy sieve, not only by government, but private business.

That was Memorial Blood Center’s faux pax. The blood center, which is sending letters to people whose Social Security numbers were ripped off, but has posted nothing about the privacy breach on its Web site, used the number to identify whether people were eligible to give blood. There was a time when we had a better way of identifying ourselves. We’d give our names.

The American Red Cross, for the record, also requires a Social Security number for identification when donating a pint of your finest. But it says a driver’s license will do. A year ago, its donors suffered the same fate as those who donated through the Minneapolis blood center.

You’re not required to give your Social Security number to private businesses. But they’re not required to provide you with any service if you don’t.

So far, only California has taken steps to significantly reduce the use of a Social Security number as a national ID card.

In the meantime, 268,000 of you are being asked to call your financial institution to head off the possibility your number will be used to access your accounts.

Guess what their first question will be?