Posted February 28, 2003 ATLANTA
Communications and Marketing
Contact David Terraso
Responding to a rapid increase in identity theft nationwide, Georgia's public universities will soon stop using social security numbers as the primary way to track students.
On March 1, Georgia Tech will become the first state university to stop using the social security numbers of students, faculty and staff on ID cards and as the primary means of identifying them in campus databases. Tech's administration believes that having these numbers available in fewer places will help its people keep their identities more secure from potential theft.
Last August, the Board of Regents issued a statement encouraging all University System of Georgia schools to use an alternate numbering system to identify students by 2005. Georgia Tech, which already had been working on a solution for two years, is taking the board's request one step further by including faculty and staff.
The threat of identity theft is real and increasing at a rapid rate. Identity theft tops the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) list of consumer complaints for 2002, making up 43 percent of all complaints made to the FTC. In 2002 the commission recorded 161,819 complaints of identity theft. That's compared to 86,198 complaints in 2001 and 31,117 in 2000.
In Georgia, the FTC received 4,709 complaints of identity theft in 2002 and 2,592 complaints in 2001, an 81 percent increase.
By removing social security numbers from Georgia Tech ID cards and many campus databases, Tech is part of a growing national movement to make these numbers more secure. In January, democratic Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, along with Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, introduced a bill that would prohibit the sale or display of the numbers to the general public.
The bill also calls for the removal of the numbers from government checks and driver's licenses as well as public documents on the Internet. In California, the legislature is considering two bills aimed at limiting the use of social security numbers. One would require colleges to stop printing the numbers on student ID's and other publicly available material.
When the U.S. government first issued social security numbers in November 1936, the numbers were meant to keep track of people enrolled in the national retirement program, not as a national identification number. But through the years, as various government agencies, businesses and universities began to use it to identify members and customers, that's just what it has become.
Now, identity thieves are using the number as a master key to unlock confidential and sensitive information about a person's life. By stealing a Social Security number, a thief can gain access to bank accounts, credit cards, driving records, tax and employment histories and other private information.
Despite the dangers, its common practice for universities to use social security numbers to track students. In a survey of 1,036 universities last year, the Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found that 50 percent of respondents still use students' social security numbers as the primary means of identifying them.
"One of the things that makes using the social security number as an ID so attractive for institutions is that almost every U.S. citizen has one," said Lori Sundal, director of the Office of Information Technology's Enterprise Information Systems and head of the GT ID project.
"But that advantage turns into a weakness when you have an institution like Georgia Tech that hosts so many international students, who may not have social security numbers," Sundal said.
To replace social security numbers, Tech has created the gtID#, a unique number that will be used to identify employees and students in most major campus databases. But that doesn't mean Tech will stop collecting social security numbers altogether. Certain services, like payroll and student financial aid, will still require the Institute to collect the numbers.
But limiting their use to these activities will make these numbers more secure and reduce the opportunities for identity thieves to get their hands on them.