Jump to content
Washington Football Team Logo

Researchers: Social Security Numbers Can Be Guessed


Recommended Posts

Researchers: Social Security Numbers Can Be Guessed

By Brian Krebs

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, July 6, 2009; 6:05 PM

Researchers have found that it is possible to guess many -- if not all -- of the nine digits in an individual's Social Security number using publicly available information, a finding they say compromises the security of one of the most widely used consumer identifiers in the United States.

Many numbers could be guessed at by simply knowing a person's birth data, the researchers from Carnegie Mellon University said.

The results come as concern grows over identity theft and lawmakers in Washington push legislation that would bar businesses from requiring people to supply their Social Security number when purchasing a good or service.

"Our work shows that Social Security numbers are compromised as authentication devices, because if they are predictable from public data, then they cannot be considered sensitive," said Alessandro Acquisti, assistant professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and a co-author of the study.

A Social Security Administration spokesman said the government has long cautioned the private sector against using a Social Security number as a personal identifier, even as it insists "there is no fool proof method for predicting a person's Social Security Number."

"For reasons unrelated to this report, the agency has been developing a system to randomly assign SSNs," which should make it more difficult to discover numbers in the future, Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said by e-mail.

Introduced in the 1930s as a way to track individuals for taxation purposes, Social Security numbers were never designed to be used for authentication. Over time, however, private and public institutions began keeping tabs on consumers using the numbers, requiring people to present them as proof of identity, such as when applying for loans, new employment, or health insurance.

Concern over the privacy of those numbers has grown in the wake of hundreds of data breaches reported by businesses, governments and educational institutions, breaches that have exposed millions of consumer records -- including SSNs.

In recent years, a number of states have passed legislation to redact or remove the numbers from public documents, such as divorce and property records, and bankruptcy filings. In addition, legislation introduced this year by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would prohibit the display, sale, or purchase of Social Security numbers without consent, and would bar businesses from requiring people to provide their number.

The researchers at Carnegie Mellon set out to see if they could discover people's numbers by first exploiting what is publicly known about how the numbers are derived.

The Social Security number's first three digits -- called the "area number" -- is issued according to the Zip code of the mailing address provided in the application form. The fourth and fifth digits -- known as the "group number" -- transition slowly, and often remain constant over several years for a given region. The last four digits are assigned sequentially.

As a result, SSNs assigned in the same state to applicants born on consecutive days are likely to contain the same first four or five digits, particularly in states with smaller populations and rates of birth.

As it happens, the researchers said, if you're trying to discover a living person's SSN, the best place to start is with a list of dead people -- particularly deceased people who were born around the time and place of your subject. The so-called "Death Master File," is a publicly available file which lists SSNs, names, dates of birth and death, and the states of all individuals who have applied for a number and whose deaths have been reported to the Social Security Administration.

CMU researchers Acquisti and Ph.D student Ralph Gross theorized that they could use the Death Master File along with publicly available birth information to predict narrow ranges of values wherein individual SSNs were likely to fall. The two tested their hunch using the Death Master File of people who died between 1972 and 2003, and found that on the first try they could correctly guess the first five digits of the SSN for 44 percent of deceased people who were born after 1988, and for 7 percent of those born between 1973 and 1988.

Acquisti and Gross found that it was far easier to predict SSNs for people born after 1988, when the Social Security Administration began an effort to ensure that U.S. newborns obtained their SSNs shortly after birth.

They were able to identify all nine digits for 8.5 percent of people born after 1988 in fewer than 1,000 attempts. For people born recently in smaller states, researchers sometimes needed just 10 or fewer attempts to predict all nine digits.

Click on the link for the full article

Link to comment
Share on other sites

'Course, the "guess method" assumes that a person applies for an SSN on the day he's born. Which might well be true for all them young whipper snappers. But us more experienced people didn't apply for our SSNs until years later. I was probably 16 when I got mine, because you didn't need one until you got your first real job. (And when I got mine, it wasn't in the state I was born in.)

I'll also point out that the "guess method" they're describing basically says "if I'm lucky, I can figure out the first five digits of your SSN", which means now I've narrowed it down to only 10,000 possible numbers. (Or 100,000 possible, if I've only got 4 digits right.)

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...