Constable: Remember when Social Security numbers were used on college ID cards?
By Burt Constable
Looking through a file of old photographs to use with a recent column, I am drawn to the image of the subject's college ID card from the 1980s, which had a wonderfully quirky and expressive head shot that made me smile. It also had the subject's full name, date of birth and Social Security number.
While printing that might have increased newspaper sales among those looking to open up fraudulent credit card accounts, I took the photo out of our collection. Federal law makes it a felony for anyone to "disclose, use, or compel the disclosure of the Social Security number of any person."
But in the 1970s and '80s, some colleges used Social Security numbers on ID cards under the belief it was a way to protect students' privacy. When my professors would post test scores or grades on their office doors, they would list them not in alphabetical order, but by Social Security number. That way, John Smith would know that he earned an F, but everybody else would know only that 666-00-9999 flunked the midterm.
I can use that Social Security number because it doesn't exist.
"No SSNs with an area number of 666 have been or will be assigned," reads a section from "The Story of the Social Security Number," which appeared in the Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 69, No. 2, 2009. There is no further explanation, but I've got to think it's a nod to those familiar with the Bible's book of Revelation, which says 666 is "the number of the beast."
The idea that the Social Security Administration would use just full names and addresses, instead of numbers, was quickly dismissed. The history section of ssa.gov notes that in 1937, "the Fred Smiths of New York City have had so much trouble in being identified by their creditors, the courts, and even their friends, that they have joined together in forming the 'Fred Smiths, Incorporated,' to serve as a clearing house for their identification problems."
Signed into law in 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" domestic program, the sole purpose of the Social Security number was to track the earning histories of U.S. workers to determine the benefits to which they were entitled as a safeguard "against the hazards and vicissitudes of life."
When the numbers started being assigned in 1936, geography played a role. The first three digits identified the cardholder's state. But because some states had far more people than others, that concept was abandoned. In 2011, the Social Security Administration opted for "randomization" of the numbers and removed any deeper meaning. While some people find that the middle two digits are the year of their birth, that is coincidental.
Older cards say "Not For Identification" on the front, and my college stopped using my Social Security number to identify students after I graduated.
"However, there is no Federal law that imposes broad restrictions on use of the SSN by businesses, states and local governments," says Doug Nguyen, regional communications director for SSA's six-state Chicago Region.
Considering the population growth since 1936, does the SSA recycle the numbers of long-dead people?
"No. Social Security does not reassign Social Security numbers," Nguyen says.
With the SSA having issued more than 500 million unique numbers since 1936, are we in danger of running out of numbers?
"Currently, there are over 1 billion combinations of nine-digit Social Security numbers. As a result, the current system has enough new numbers to last for many years to come," Nguyen says.
Whether there will be enough money in the system to last for many years to come is a question for politicians.