Thursday, May 01, 2008

The ID Conundrum

I called human resources at Northwestern with a question about health insurance. After she had trouble tracking me in the system we discovered Northwestern had the wrong social security number for me. Northwestern take great care to hide my SSN, using an employee number on my Faculty ID card and allowing me electronic access to my paycheck with nary a social security number in site. Northwestern would probably not use my SSN at all except they need it to report taxes which would have caused all sorts of havoc had, by pure luck, I didn't catch the mistake.

That's the problem with the social security number. We've become so scared of using the SSN, the number has become useless. What we need is a unique public ID that we are not afraid of using. In my ideal world, we would all have a public and private ID. With someone's public ID I could use it to call them, text them, IM them, email them even send them postal mail by simply writing their ID number on the envelope and the post office's computers will know how to route the mail. People would use their private ID to log onto some central server to set the places that the public ID points to as well as block certain users and deal with privacy restrictions.

You could use your public and private ID to log onto all your services so you don't need to keep separate accounts on various webpages. Both Northwestern and the University of Chicago have single electronic IDs and passwords to access email, benefits and wage information, course information, get wifi access and much more.

Now that people avoid using the SSN as a public ID, cell phone numbers and email addresses are beginning to play that role. Privacy advocates have slowed down efforts to have a public ID for a variety of reasons. But the great need for an ID means the market will start using whatever it has available and isn't it better to carefully design a proper public/private ID than have some ad-hoc market-driven system instead.


  1. Sounds like a job for public key cryptography!

  2. Just like for every other problem on the planet, we should let the market play itself out and it will find the most efficient solution.

  3. Carnegie Mellon University, at least as recently as 1997, used Social Security Numbers as our student id's. It was printed in clear view on the front of each student's id card.

  4. Sounds like a spammer paradise. Even publicizing one's postal mail address turns into a huge pain in the neck in terms of junk mail, despite the cost of sending junk mail. Even giving your postal mail to entities that actually keep it private, causes mail overload. I have various bank accounts etc. and I wish I could get them to stop sending me monthly statements since it just fills my mailbox with crap. Unless I actually owe them money (in which case of course they should invoice me) I'd rather only hear from them quarterly or annually, since if I otherwise want to know my account status I can always check with them.

    Blocking "certain users" is nowhere near enough. It's necessary to impose a fairly high cost on any non-pre-agreed contact. At which point you're back to snail mail, more or less.