Here we go again. Yet another institution who “takes the protection of [my] personal information very seriously” wrote to me to let me know that they lost some unencrypted backup tapes with my SSN and everything. In a way I’d prefer if they said that they don’t take the protection of my personal information seriously. Because now I have to assume that they are incompetent even at the tasks they take seriously, which presumably also includes performing financial transactions (it’s a bank). That they plead dumbness rather than carelessness kind of scares me.
Well, not really. This letter is just damage control of course and whatever reassuring verbiage they put doesn’t mean anything. Everyone is just playing pretend, which is how this whole “identify theft” problem started (“we’ll pretend that the SSN is confidential information and that we can use it to authenticate people”).
A few months ago I wrote that it is now safe to steal my identity because the credit watch service provided by Fidelity following their similar screw-up (laptop stolen from a car that time) had expired. Of course the new breach comes with two years of credit monitoring, courtesy of the incompetent bank.
So here is yet another reason to not buy credit monitoring services (in addition to the fact that they don’t work and that you can get the same thing for free): it’s only a matter of months before the next breach and the free two years of credit monitoring that will ensue.
Note to whoever stole the laptop of a Fidelity employee two years ago, with personal information (SSN and more) for everyone enrolled in HP’s retirement plan: it is now safe to make use of the information. Congratulations on being patient.
I received an email telling me that the “credit watch” service in which all affected HP employees (and ex-employees) were enrolled for free has expired. Of course, we are invited to start paying Equifax to keep it running. $65 per year (and that’s supposedly a discounted rate, mind you, half the “normal” price) to run a DB query once a week on my behalf. Not bad. I should be in that business.
In what ways is the lost data less dangerous two years later? The “1 or 2 years of free credit watch” offer that is typical after events such security violations is obviously just a PR move to allow the guilty party to look like they are taking responsibility for their embarrassing display of incompetence. And it probably costs them very little, if anything, to provide this, considering how good a customer acquisition strategy it is for the “credit watch” department of the credit agencies. The fact that Fidelity and their pears don’t have to bear any real cost for this is the reason why it keeps happening.
If I sound a bit detached about this, it’s not that I am not worried about someone impersonating me by using my SSN and birth date. It’s just that I am not more worried about that specific laptop theft than I am about the hundreds of employees at medical offices, dental offices, insurances companies, banks etc that already have access to this information.
The solution is to publish every single SSN on a web site and stop pretending they can be used for authentication.
[UPDATED 2008/7/7: One more name in the long list of companies that have (often through a subcontractor) leaked so-called "personal" information about their employees. It's only news because the employer is Google and anything Google-related is for some reason considered newsworthy. Danny is kind to be appreciative for the one year of free credit monitoring. It probably costs Google close to nothing. Which is why Google and the others don't really care about the problem.]
… because the issue has been mixed up with the whole terrorism/DHS hysteria. Game over. So now we have “Real ID” which won’t stop any terrorist but somehow is marketed as an anti-terrorist measure. I don’t like this law because it is too focused on physical identification (ID card) and not virtual identification. Trying to impersonate someone in person is difficult, dangerous (you risk being arrested on the spot or at least having your face captured by a security camera) and doesn’t scale. Doing it virtually is easy, safe and scales (you can even do it from anywhere in the world, including places where labor is cheap and the FBI doesn’t reach much). So this is where the focus should be. Also, this law is not respectful of privacy (the “unencrypted bar code” issue, even though if someone really wanted to systematically capture name and address from ID cards today they could take a picture of the ID and OCR it, the Real ID-mandated bar code would only make things a little easier).
On the other hand, I also can’t go along with the detractors of this law when they go beyond pointing out its shortcomings and start ranting about this creating a national ID card. While it’s true that this is what it effectively does, someone needs to explain to me why this is bad and why this would make the US a “police state”. If really such IDs are so damaging to liberties, why is it ok for every state to have them? What makes a national ID more dangerous than a state ID?
I agree that the Real ID effort is a bad cost/benefit trade off in terms of protection against terrorism. But leaving terrorism aside, we do need a robust (not necessarily perfect) way to authenticate people to access bank accounts and other similar transactions. In that respect, something like Real ID is needed. And in that context, the cost/benefit trade-off can be hugely positive if you think of how much impersonation costs and how much friction it creates in the country’s economy.
As long as we live in denial about what a Social Security number represents and as long as we can’t think sanely about terrorism, there can’t be an answer to the authentication problem.
An article in today’s New York Times reports that “the Social Security numbers of tens of thousands of people who received loans or other financial assistance from two Agriculture Department programs were disclosed for years in a publicly available database”.
Almost there folks! But tens of thousands is not enough, we need to cover everyone. The simplest effective way to dent the “identity-theft” (or more exactly “impersonation”) wave is to go beyond this first step and publish on a publicly accessible web site all social security numbers ever issued and the associated names. And get rid once and for all of the hypocritical assumption that SSN have any authentication value. We need a reliable authentication infrastructure (either publicly-run as a government service or privately-run, that’s a topic for another day) and this SSN-based comedy is preventing its emergence by giving credit issuers (and others) a cheap and easy way to pretend that they have authenticated their customers.
Over the last couple of years, I have received two alerts that my SSN and other data have been “compromised” (one when Fidelity lost a laptop containing data about everyone enrolled in HP’s retirement plan and one from a university) and my wife has received three. Doesn’t this sound like a bad joke going on for too long (and I should know about bad jokes going on for too long, they are my specialty)? And of course this doesn’t count the thousands of employees at dentist, medical offices, and many other businesses that have at some point had access to my data (and anybody else’s).
So, to the IT people at the Census Bureau I say “keep going”! But of course that’s not the reaction they had. The rest of the NY Times articles goes on with the usual hypocritical (or uninformed) lamentations about putting people’s identities at risk. “We took swift action when this was brought to our attention, and took the information down.” says an Agriculture Department spokeswoman. And of course there is the usual “credit report monitoring” offer (allowing the credit report agencies to benefit from both sides of the SSN-for-authentication debacle). Oblivious to the reality even though it manifests itself further down in the article: “The database [...] is used by many federal and state agencies, by researchers, by journalists and by other private citizens to track government spending. Thousands of copies of the database exist.”
Another quote from the article: “Federal agencies are under strict obligations to limit the use of Social Security numbers as an identifier”. The SSN is a fine identifier. It’s using it as a mean of authentication that’s the problem.
[UPDATE] This is now a Slashdot thread. The comments are pouring in. Some get it (like here, and here). This one seems to get it too but then goes on to advocate dismantling the social security system which at this point is only connected by name to the issue at hand.
[UPDATED 2008/7/2: Sigh, sigh and more sigh while reading this article. The cat is so far out of the bag that a colony of mice has taken residency in it. The goal shouldn't be to try to make the SSN hard to get, it should be to make it useless to criminals. That approach isn't even mentioned in the article.]