Personal Identifier Confidentiality

How often do you give out your Social Security number (SSN)? How often do you give out your driver's license number? When you give your SSN or driver's license number out to a business or individual, do you ask who will have access to the number, how it will be stored, and for how long? If you are concerned about identity theft, you should be concerned about the confidentiality of personal identifiers such as your SSN and driver's license number. Keeping your unique personal identifiers under wraps is one of the best preventative measures you can take to keep your identity safe from would be thieves.

The SSN was created to track workers' earnings and eligibility for Social Security benefits. Over time, however, SSNs have become a de facto national ID number, and are now used for many unrelated purposes. This widespread use, and the fact that many businesses will grant credit to an individual who provides a SSN along with a few other easily obtainable pieces of personal information, such as home telephone number, birth date or mailing address, has made the SSN one of the personal identifiers most sought after by identity thieves. Fortunately, you can reduce your risk by reducing the exposure of your SSN.

First, and most importantly, do not give out your SSN to another person if it is not necessary. Many businesses will ask for the number, and all too often consumers will hand it over without thinking about the potential consequences. Be sure to ask why the number is needed before giving it out, and if you are not satisfied with the answer, ask to talk to a manager or consider taking your business elsewhere. Keep in mind, however, that most businesses use SSNs for legitimate purposes. For example, if you are applying for credit, the business will most likely need your SSN in order to access your credit report. On the other hand, some businesses merely use SSNs for customer tracking purposes. In this case, you should be able to provide substitute identification, or the business can assign you a unique customer ID number. Lastly, keep in mind that some government agencies can require you to disclose your SSN, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, public assistance offices, and tax agencies.

There is no law prohibiting businesses from requesting your SSN, and some businesses may deny services if you do not provide it. In order to address this issue, my Committee reported, and the Assembly passed, legislation that would require entities requesting a SSN to disclose to the individual how such number is intended to be used and prohibit such entities from requiring an individual to disclose his or her SSN, or to refuse any service, privilege or right based on an individual's refusal to disclose such number, unless such disclosure is required under federal or state law or regulation (A.334, Greene). Unfortunately, the Senate did take any action on this legislation.

What about driver's license numbers? What about businesses or security professionals that ask to scan your driver's license? New York State driver's licenses now include a magnetic strip containing license information that is readable by specially designed scanners. Recently, I was asked to provide my driver's license for scanning in order to gain access to a building.

I informed the security guard that I would prefer to show another form of photo identification and have the information for my temporary ID badge entered manually, instead of having my license scanned and the personal information on it stored in their database. The guard obliged and I was off to my meeting. If you find yourself in a similar situation, but do not have a photo ID other than your license, there is no need to worry, as most security desks have a camera on hand to take pictures of guests.

Remember, reducing the amount of personally identifying information that you divulge, reduces the chance an identity thief will be able to obtain such information. Even if the business or security guard states that their database is secure, or that your information is deleted within a certain timeframe, it is important to keep in mind that in this age of hackers and cyber-criminals no personal information that is stored digitally is guaranteed to be safe from the prying eyes of identity thieves.

For more information about protecting the confidentiality of your personally identifying information, consider visiting the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's website at: You may also want to visit the Social Security Administration's webpage on identity theft and SSNs at:

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