No, you don’t need my social security number.

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– (phone rings) Hello.
– Hello, I’m calling from American Express. Are you Mr. *****  ******?
– Yes, great that someone finally reacts to my reclamation.
– First I need to verify your identity. What’s your social security number?
– Excuse me but you are calling me on a number that you have in your register, so you can be pretty confident that you are talking to the right person. But I have no way of knowing that you really are from Amex. So YOU tell ME what my social security number is. I know you have it on file.
– (silence) Well, eh … we must identify our customers to be able to serve them by phone. It’s company policy.
– Yes, I know that. But I’m certainly NOT going to give out my number to a stranger who calls and asks for it. I really need some kind of identification from you first.

It went on like that for a while until I proposed a compromise. I told her the first part of my number and she told me the last digits. It all matched and we were able to proceed.

This post is not about American Express, it is about a severe and widespread problem that is visible in this case. The problem is these Social Security Numbers, SSNs, or National Identification Numbers which is a proper global term. They appear in most countries, in many forms and under many names. But they all have two things in common. They were designed to be unique and distinguish persons with the same name. And they are misused for identification.

The practice of using the SSN as proof of identity is really fundamentally flawed. They are used in the same way as a password, knowledge of the “secret” is supposed to prove who you are. The problem is just that the SSN isn’t designed to be secret. If you are a little bit Internet savvy, you know the basic rules for safe passwords. Think of your SSN as a password. It’s assigned once for your whole lifetime and you can’t change it. You are forced to use the same SSN on all services you use. It’s printed on various documents, depending on what country you live in. It’s recorded in numerous registers, and you don’t even know where all those registers are and who’s got access to them. Would you handle the password to your favorite net service this way? Hell, no! Still knowledge of this fundamentally flawed “password” may enable anyone to get credit, order goods, close accounts, etc. in someone else’s name. Scary!

But what can we do about it? Let’s refresh the memory with some practical advice about how to handle your SSN.

  • Do some googling and look for national advice about SSN security in your country. Laws and practices vary and a local source is typically more accurate. But here comes some generic advice.
  • Do not give out your SSN unless you know who he other part is.
  • Verify that the other part has a valid reason to use your SSN before you reveal it.
  • If a business demands your SSN, you can refuse to give it but the business can refuse to serve you. You can either comply or spend your money elsewhere.
  • Some try to phish for SSNs, look out for fraudulent web forms that ask for it.
  • Check what documents you carry in your wallet that have the SSN printed. Avoid carrying those documents daily, if possible, as your wallet may get stolen.
  • Invoices, tax documents etc. may have the SSN printed. Think about how you dispose those papers. If you have a shredder, use it.
  • Needless to say, don’t post the SSN on the net in any context.

This will help a bit, but not cure the fundamental problem. Your SSN is still used and stored so widely that you may be the victim of identity theft even if you do all this.

The problem is really the misuse of SSNs as proof of identity. And the next question is obvious, what should we use instead? Yes, that’s right. There is no common, safe and reliable method for identifying a caller. Some companies have their own methods to improve security. They may require both your SSN and for example a customer number or invoice number. Better, but still not good as those additional numbers aren’t protected very well either. The banks have good systems with sheets of one-time passwords, or similar. These system have been developed with security in mind and are typically reliable enough. They are developed for on-line access but often work for identifying a caller as well.

Banks have good systems, but they are unique for each bank. We would really need national systems, or even better, a global system for reliable identification of persons both on-line and over the phone. More and more of our transactions cross borders and national systems do not help if you are dealing with someone overseas, like in this case. The problem is not technical, public key cryptography and digital signatures could be deployed to achieve this. But agreeing on a reliable global identification standard that won’t become a privacy threat would certainly be a significant political achievement.

So we probably have to live with this flaw for quite a long time. National solutions will no doubt become available in some countries. Estonia is usually quick to utilize new technology and this is no exception, An electronic ID is a good fundament even if reliable identification over the phone still would require some additional technology. But the rest of us just have to acknowledge the risk, keep our non-secret SSNs as secret as possible and hope for the best.

Safe surfing,
Micke

Image by DonkeyHotey @ Flickr.

More posts from this topic

trust, internet, internet of things

A Brief History of the Trusted Internet

By Allen Scott, managing director of F-Secure UK and Ireland The internet and the industry which surrounds it is at a tipping point. The scramble to dominate in emerging product and service markets has led many organisations to lose sight of what the Internet should be. If things continue on this downward moral trajectory, we run the risk of breaching the rights of every person who uses it. As a general rule of thumb, violating customers and prospects is not a wise sales strategy. This is why the Trusted Internet is so important now, in 2015, to stem the tide. Half the world away The internet has morphed from a military funded academic computer network into the World Wide Web into what we know today. It has created new industries and billionaire business owners. It has made the world smaller by connecting people who would never otherwise have interacted. It has helped every person by making their life a little easier – from keeping in touch with family to being the number one resource for research on any given subject. It is hard to imagine life without it. Of course, not everyone is online…yet. Figures vary, but it is generally accepted that approximately 3 billion people are now connected to the internet. That is 42% of the world’s population. By 2018, it is estimated that half of the world’s population will be online. That means that every other person could have their human right to privacy (Article 12 of the Declaration of Human Rights) violated. It is unacceptable because it is avoidable. Personal data – the ultimate renewable resource The internet is now an extension of mankind. It is our marvellous creation and we are growing more and more dependent on it. The problem is that it is turning into a Frankenstein’s monster. We are so consumed with whether something (such as tracking people’s movements online) is possible, that the industry has forgotten to ask themselves whether they should. Morality has been pushed aside in the race to gain more personal data, for knowledge is power. Don’t believe how valuable data is? Just take a look at Google. A giant of the internet, it made over £11 billion in profit last year. Not bad for a company which gives away its services for free. Google collects so much data on its users that it is the fourth largest manufacturer of servers in the world. It doesn’t even sell servers! Personal data is big business. Advertisers pay a lot of money for profiles on people. What people like, where they live, who they are likely to vote for, whether they are left-handed – some marketing companies claim to have up to 1,500 points of interest on each individual’s profile. Are all of these ‘interesting points’ something which those people are happy to have shared? I doubt it.  What about the Internet of Things Next up is the Internet of Things (IoT). A concept whereby a vast number of objects, from toasters to bridges, will be connected to the internet where they will share the data they collect. The benefits of this emerging network is that analysis of the data will lead to efficiencies and will make life easier still for people. For example, I could combine the data collected from my smartphone pedometer, my diet app and my watch’s heart monitor to analyse my health and make informed improvements. So far, so good. The IoT waters get a little murkier when you start asking who else has access to that data about me. Maybe I don’t mind if my doctor sees it, but I’m not comfortable with marketing companies or health insurers seeing that data. It’s private. We are fortunate that we are still in the fledgling stage of the IoT and have the opportunity to shape how it impacts our private lives. This is a relatively small window in which to act though, so we must be outspoken in order to protect people’s civil liberties. The ethical solution The next stage of internet development needs to be the Trusted Internet. People have the right to privacy online and it is entirely possible. Not every business and organisation online is part of the data-collecting frenzy. Some, like F-Secure, simply don’t care what you want to look up in a search engine or which websites you visit (unless they are malicious, of course!). We believe that your data is exactly that – yours. Until now, the internet has developed a taste for the free in people. Users have been reluctant to pay for services which they could get for free elsewhere. But now people are realising that when they don’t pay for the product, they are the product. With F-Secure, our customers are just that – customers. Being the customer, their data is their own. Our job is to protect them and their data. We believe that the internet should be a place for people to learn and interact. There shouldn’t be a price on this in the form of our privacy. If there should be a price, it should be monetary, so that people have the chance to buy the services they wish to use, rather than gaining access to services in exchange for personal information. I would happily pay to use Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or one of the many other sites which stakes claim to me when I sign up. We are the generation which created the internet. Let’s not be the generation which disposed of decency, respect and privacy too. [Image by Timo Arnall | Flickr]

Feb 27, 2015
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Mikko Hypponen to Talk Privacy at the Mobile World Congress

This year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) is coming up next week. The annual Barcelona-based tech expo features the latest news in mobile technologies. One of the biggest issues of the past year has enticed our own digital freedom fighter Mikko Hypponen to participate in the event. Hypponen, a well-known advocate of digital freedom, has been defending the Internet and its users from digital threats for almost 25 years. He’s appearing at this year’s MWC on Monday, March 2 for a conference session called “Ensuring User-Centred Privacy in a Connected World”. The panel will discuss and debate different ways to ensure privacy doesn’t become a thing of the past. While Hypponen sees today’s technologies as having immeasurable benefits for us all, he’s become an outspoken critic of what he sees as what’s “going wrong in the online world”. He’s spoken prominently about a range of these issues in the past year, and been interviewed on topics as diverse as new malware and cybersecurity threats, mass surveillance and digital privacy, and the potential abuses of emerging technologies (such as the Internet of Things). The session will feature Hypponen and five other panelists. But, since the event is open to public discussion on Twitter under the #MWC15PRIV hashtag, you can contribute to the conversation. Here’s three talking points to help you get started: Security in a mobile world A recent story broken by The Intercept describes how the American and British governments hacked Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world. In doing so, they obtained the encryption keys that secure mobile phone calls across the globe. You can read a recent blog post about it here if you’re interested in more information about how this event might shape the discussion. Keeping safe online It recently came to light that an adware program called “Superfish” contains a security flaw that allows hackers to impersonate shopping, banking, or other websites. These “man-in-the-middle” attacks can be quite serious and trick people into sharing personal data with criminals. The incident highlights the importance of making sure people can trust their devices. And the fact that Superfish comes pre-installed on notebooks from the world’s largest PC manufacturer makes it worth discussing sooner rather than later. Privacy and the Internet of Things Samsung recently warned people to be aware when discussing personal information in front of their Smart TVs. You can get the details from this blog post, but basically the Smart TVs voice activation technology can apparently listen to what people are saying and even share the information with third parties. As more devices become “smart”, will we have to become smarter about what we say and do around them? The session is scheduled to run from 16:00 – 17:30 (CET), so don’t miss this chance to join the fight for digital freedom at the MWC. [Image by Hubert Burda Media | Flickr]

Feb 27, 2015
BY 
Apple

Which operating system is the most secure? Four points to remember.

No, you are almost certainly wrong if you tried to guess. A recent study shows that products from Apple actually are at the top when counting vulnerabilities, and that means at the bottom security-wise. Just counting vulnerabilities is not a very scientific way to measure security, and there is a debate over how to interpret the figures. But this is anyway a welcome eye-opener that helps kill old myths. Apple did for a long time stubbornly deny security problems and their marketing succeeded in building an image of security. Meanwhile Windows was the biggest and most malware-targeted system. Microsoft rolled up the sleeves and fought at the frontline against viruses and vulnerabilities. Their reputation suffered but Microsoft gradually improved in security and built an efficient process for patching security holes. Microsoft had what is most important in security, the right attitude. Apple didn’t and the recent vulnerability study shows the result. Here’s four points for people who want to select a secure operating system. Forget reputation when thinking security. Windows used to be bad and nobody really cared to attack Apple’s computers before they became popular. The old belief that Windows is unsafe and Apple is safe is just a myth nowadays. There is malware on almost all commonly used platforms. Windows Phone is the only exception with practically zero risk. Windows and Android are the most common systems and malware authors are targeting them most. So the need for an anti-malware product is naturally bigger on these systems. But the so called antivirus products of today are actually broad security suites. They protect against spam and harmful web sites too, just to mention some examples. So changes are that you want a security product anyway even if your system isn’t one of the main malware targets. So which system is most secure? It’s the one that is patched regularly. All the major systems, Windows, OS X and Linux have sufficient security for a normal private user. But they will also all become unsafe if the security updates are neglected. So security is not really a selection criteria for ordinary people. Mobile devices, phones and tablets, generally have a more modern systems architecture and a safer software distribution process. Do you have to use a desktop or laptop, or can you switch to a tablet? Dumping the big old-school devices is a way to improve security. Could it work for you? So all this really boils down to the fact that you can select any operating system you like and still be reasonable safe. There are some differences though, but it is more about old-school versus new-school devices. Not about Apple versus Microsoft versus Linux. Also remember that your own behavior affects security more than your choice of device, and that you never are 100% safe no matter what you do.   Safe surfing, Micke   Added February 27th. Yes, this controversy study has indeed stirred a heated debate, which isn’t surprising at all. Here’s an article defending Apple. It has flaws and represent a very limited view on security, but one of its important points still stands. If someone still thinks Apple is immortal and invincible, it’s time to wake up. And naturally that this whole debate is totally meaningless for ordinary users. Just keep patching what you have and you will be fine. :) Thanks to Jussi (and others) for feedback.  

Feb 26, 2015
BY