Social Security Numbers Deduced From Public Data

This was posted on Wired.com on July 6th… I always thought the number that were assigned had a mathematical formula (birth date & location). This is a little scary, but good to be aware.

For years, government officials have urged people to protect their Social Security numbers by giving out the nine-digit codes only when absolutely necessary. Now it turns out that all the caution in the world may not be enough: New research shows that Social Security numbers can be predicted from publicly available birth information with a surprising degree of accuracy.

By analyzing a public data set called the “Death Master File,” which contains SSNs and birth information for people who have died, computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon University discovered distinct patterns in how the numbers are assigned. In many cases, knowing the date and state of an individual’s birth was enough to predict a person’s SSN.

“We didn’t break any secret code or hack into an undisclosed data set,” said privacy expert Alessandro Acquisti, co-author of the study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We used only publicly available information, and that’s why our result is of value. It shows that you can take personal information that’s not sensitive, like birth date, and combine it with other publicly available data to come up with something very sensitive and confidential.”

With just two attempts, the researchers correctly guessed the first five digits of SSNs for 60 percent of deceased Americans born between 1989 and 2003. With fewer than 1,000 attempts, they could identify the entire nine digits for 8.5 percent of the group.

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About repplinger

John has served as a Reference Librarian at Willamette University since 2002. He is the liaison to the Science Departments, and is responsible for maintaining the collections related to the life & physical sciences. His research interests range over the entire spectrum of libraries and information sciences, but includes: - Google and its influence on information & society - The Internet's influence on information seeking & sharing behaviors - Trends of scholarly communication - Electronic learning environments - Traditional pedagogy - GIS use in academic libraries

Posted on July 8, 2009, in Privacy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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