Theft Of Social Security Numbers Is Broader Than You Might Think
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The theft of personal information belonging to as many as 14 million people from government databases puts the issue of cyber security front and center. That makes it a good topic for this week's All Tech Considered.
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CORNISH: Our Internet-connected world now makes it possible for enterprising thieves all over the globe to steal troves of information all at once. That includes long lists of credit card numbers, as we've seen repeatedly, and also Social Security numbers, as in this latest government hack. NPR's Aarti Shahani joins us now from San Francisco to talk more. Hey there, Aarti.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So as you've been looking beyond this particular incident at the broad problem of Social Security number theft, we've also seen this in the hacking of health care records, such as at Anthem. What have you learned? I mean, how many Social Security numbers have been taken?
SHAHANI: (Laughter). Well, that's a question I've been trying to answer, and it sent me on a wild goose chase. The Social Security Administration says it does not have account. So then I turned to the Federal Trade Commission, which is the lead agency on identity theft for the federal government, and they say they don't have anything approximating that number because they don't track breaches. And they suggested that I contact Verizon, which puts out this very popular annual report on breaches.
CORNISH: So to get a tally on theft of Social Security numbers, the federal government actually sent you to a phone company?
SHAHANI: (Laughter). Pretty much. Now, Verizon gets cyber-attack data from about 70 organizations around the world, including federal agencies like the Secret Service. I spoke with a senior researcher at Verizon, a lead data scientist who's been slicing and dicing this data for years. And before I tell you his estimate, Audie, I've just got to ask you. What would you guess? What percentage of people has had their Social Security number stolen?
CORNISH: I'm going to guess, like, 20-something percent.
SHAHANI: (Laughter). OK, fair estimate. According to this expert, his guess - 60 to 80 percent of our Social Security numbers have been stolen by hackers.
CORNISH: Yikes. That's, like, everyone. That's really a percentage. I mean, that's most of us.
SHAHANI: It's the vast majority. I even told the guy, like, hey, I'm not asking about email addresses. I'm talking Socials. And he stuck by that estimate. You know, he also pointed out that Social Security numbers have been stolen for decades. Back when they were written on paper, breaking into a filing cabinet - that's not a crime that scaled up. But today, when you've got everything digital on servers and data warehouses, that'll scale into the millions quickly.
CORNISH: So theft has grown by orders of magnitude. But just 'cause your number was stolen, that doesn't mean that you're a victim of identity theft.
SHAHANI: You know, fair enough. And the number of victims is definitely smaller. We just don't have a great estimate on how many. A key detail is that the burden falls on you to vigilantly monitor if you are a victim. The Social Security Administration has a policy. You can't change your number just because it's been stolen. You need proof that it's been abused and you've taken great pains and efforts to fix the problem. And they're strict. All last year, they replaced only about 250 people's numbers.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Thanks so much.
SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.