Social Insecurity

A little box on the state's voter-registration form leads to big questions from those concerned with identity theft

The little box, with the number 14, is located near the bottom of the yellow voter-registration form, and it asks for the last four digits of a person's Social Security number.

That might look innocent enough to people registering to vote before November's general election—but looks can be deceiving.

Last year, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh published a paper entitled: "Predicting Social Security Numbers From Public Data." Using only birth dates—a commonly available piece of information—along with modern technology, the researchers were able to successfully predict "narrow ranges of values wherein individual (nine-digit) SSNs are likely to fall."

"Policy makers may need to finally reassess," the authors of the study concluded, "our perilous reliance on SSNs for authentication and on consumers' impossible duty to protect them."

In a follow-up e-mail, Alessandro Acquisti, one of the researchers, says that combining a date of birth with the last four SSN digits means "finding the other first five (digits) is much, much easier."

Thus, Acquisti declares: "Requesting the last four digits in public documents is not a good idea."

Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, agrees. Stephens acknowledges that a request for the last four Social Security number digits is now relatively common across the country, but "our preference is not to ask for them. It creates an identity-theft risk."

That could be especially true in Arizona, where for years, the state has ranked at or near the top of identity-theft complaints per capita. Having a criminal obtain someone's personal identifying information can lead to all sorts of financial and other problems.

But Arizona's dismal performance with identity theft doesn't stop the state from asking people registering to vote for their last four Social Security number digits.

Amazingly, most people aren't legally required to share their Social Security numbers; it's only potentially necessary for those who don't have either an Arizona driver's license or state non-operating-license number.

These three options—driver's license, non-operating-license number, or Social Security number—are all labeled as "identifiers" in Arizona law. The state additionally offers to generate a unique identifying number for anyone without one of these three alternatives.

But the mere collection of the last four Social Security number digits raises questions, like: Why did the Legislature mandate box 14 on the voter-registration form without highlighting it as not being required by most people? Instead, only the use of a Tribal Identification Number by Native Americans as a proof of citizenship is designated as "optional."

Willy Bils says he's been interested in privacy issues for 35 years—since reading Dossier: The Secret Files They Keep on You, by Aryeh Neier, the American Civil Liberties Union director at the time. Bils notes the limited use of the word "optional" on the Arizona voter-registration form "implies everything else is mandatory."

In the form's upper-right-hand corner, there is an explanation of the very limited number of people who have to provide the digits—but many applicants apparently don't read or follow those instructions.

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez reports that most people registering to vote fill out the Social Security number box. She says her office sometimes uses the information as verification, but insists the data isn't shared with anyone.

Bils has other concerns about the gathering of the four SSN digits. He notes that federal law requires a disclosure statement to be provided when governmental agencies collect a Social Security number, but none is included on the voter-registration form.

This disclosure statement, according to the website of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, "explains whether you are required to provide your SSN or if it's optional, (and) how the SSN will be used."

"Some slick lawyer will say that (the disclosure requirement) only applies to all nine digits of the SSN," Bils comments, "but you've got everything there on the form to steal someone's identity."

The Arizona Secretary of State's office is responsible for preparing the voter-registration form. Both major-party candidates for the position—Republican Ken Bennett and Democrat Chris Deschene—were sent e-mail inquiries about the issue. However, neither Bennett nor Deschene responded by the deadline for this story.

However, even the Social Security Administration cautions people about giving out their numbers. "You should be careful about sharing your number, even when you are asked for it: You should ask why your number is needed, how it will be used and what happens if you refuse."

While repeatedly declaring that there are much larger issues with the voter-registration form than just the collection of the Social Security numbers, Bils concludes: "Americans are clearly inclined to give away a substantial amount of their privacy and would rather be protected by acres of computers. But (those machines) can easily be turned against them."

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