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Your Social Security Number Revealed to Be Easy to Guess


Security flaw in SSNs exposed by researchers.

Note to Uncle Sam: There appears to be a flaw in the way Social Security Numbers (SSNs) are issued, especially at birth.

This could allow enterprising hackers to steal the identities of millions of individuals, since SSNs are the de facto identifiers for Americans.

Researchers Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross, of Carnegie Mellon University, say they've devised a statistical method for determining a person's SSN.

"Social Security Numbers, in their current form, are highly insecure passwords and should not be used for authentication," the researchers say.

"If one can successfully identify all 9 digits of a Social Security Number in fewer than 10, 100, or even 1,000 attempts, that Social Security number is no more secure than a 3-digit PIN. Unfortunately, Social Security Numbers are still used (and abused) everywhere in the private sector to authenticate identities, which leads to widespread crimes of identity theft."

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For more, see Identity Theft Is All Your Fault

The Social Security Administration told the New York Times that it's a "dramatic exaggeration" to say researchers have "cracked a code," but noted that SSNs will be randomly assigned to Americans at birth beginning next year.

This is precisely what Acquisti and Gross recommended, which suggests that the 2 researchers are on to something.

The researchers say the current system has unwittingly created an "architecture of vulnerability" partly because so much personal information -- such as a person's date and place of birth -- is now available online. That information combined with modern computing power has revealed flaws in how SSNs are issued.

Each SSN has 3 components: an area number, a group number, and a serial number. The researchers say these components can be predicted based on the location of a person's residence when applying for a SSN.

Area and group numbers for all 50 states are available online, and the SSNs are assigned in consecutive order. People born after 1988 were assigned SSNs under the Enumeration at Birth Law. This made it easier to determine a person's number, since their birthplace and location are guaranteed to be the same at the time of assignment.
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