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


– (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,

Image by DonkeyHotey @ Flickr.

More posts from this topic

safe harbor, U.S privacy, European privacy

The ‘Safe Harbor’ ruling divides the ‘old world’ and ‘new world’

This week's ruling by the European Court of Justice striking down the 2000 "Safe harbor" agreement between the European Union and and the United States was celebrated as vindication by privacy activists, who saw the decision as a first major international consequence of the Snowden revelations detailing the extraordinary extent of mass surveillance being conducted by the U.S. and its allies. "The safe harbor agreement allowed U.S. companies to self-certify they abided by EU-strength data protection standards," Politico's David Meyer reported. "This gave them a relatively simple mechanism to start legally handling Europeans’ personal data." That simple mechanism did not abide by the Commissions own privacy standards, the Court decided. "The court, by declaring invalid the safe harbor which currently permits a sizeable amount of the commercial movement of personal data between the EU and the U.S., has signaled that PRISM and other government surveillance undermine the privacy rights that regulates such movements under European law," the EFF's Danny O'Brien wrote. A new Safe Harbor agreement is currently being negotiated and the Court's ruling seems designed to speed that up. But for now many companies -- especially smaller companies -- and users are now in a sort of a legal limbo. And that legal limbo may not be great news for your privacy, according to F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan, as it creates legal uncertainty that could easily be exploited by government spy agencies and law enforcement. "Uncertainty is their bread or butter," he told me. To Sean, this ruling and the urge to break it represent an "old world" view of the Internet where geography was key. The U.S. government has suggested that it doesn't need to respect borders when it comes to companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Google, which are headquartered in the U.S. but do business around the world. Last month, the Department of Justice said it could demand Microsoft turn over Hotmail data of any user, regardless where s/he lives. "The cloud doesn’t have any borders," Sean said. "Where stuff is located geographically is kind of quaint." You can test this out by using an app like Citizen Ex that tests your "Algorithmic Citizenship." Sean, an American who lives in Finland, is identified as an American online -- as much of the world would be. What Europe gave up in privacy with Safe Harbor was, to some, made up for in creating a cohesive marketplace that made it easier for businesses to prosper. Facebook and Google warned that the U.S.'s aggressive surveillance risked "breaking the Internet." This ruling could be the first crack in that break. Avoiding that requires a "new world" view of the Internet that respects privacy regardless of geography, according to Sean. He's hopeful that reform comes quickly and democratically in a way that doesn't require courts to force politicians' hands. The U.S. showed some willingness to reform is surveillance state when it passed the USA FREEDOM Act -- the first new limitations on intelligence gathering since 9/11. But more needs to be done, says the EFF. The digital rights organization is calling for "reforming Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, and re-formulating Executive Order 12333." Without these reforms, it's possible that any new agreement that's reached between the U.S. and Europe might not reach the standards now reaffirmed by the European Court of Justice.

October 9, 2015

Is protection against self-incrimination dead in the digital era? (Poll)

How to balance between privacy and crime fighting? That’s one of the big questions now when we are entering the digitally connected era. Our western democracies have a set of well-established and widely accepted rules that control what authorities can and can’t do. One aspect of this has been in the headlines lately. That’s your right to “plead the Fifth”, as the Americans say. Laws are different in every country, but most have something similar to USA’s Fifth Amendment. The beef is that “No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,…”. Or as often expressed in popular culture: “You have the right to remain silent.” With more fancy words, protection against self-incrimination. What this means in practice is that no one can force you to reveal information if authorities are suspecting you of a crime. You have the right to defend yourself, and refusal to disclose information is a legal defense tactic. But the police can search your home and vehicles for items, if they have the proper warrant, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. In short, the Fifth Amendment protects what you know but not what you have. Sounds fair. But the problem is that there was no information technology when these fundamental principles were formed back in 1789. The makers of the Fifth Amendment, and similar laws in other countries, could not foresee that “what you know” will expand far beyond our own brains. Our mobile gadgets, social media and cloud services can in the worst case store a very comprehensive picture of how we think, whom we have communicated with, where we have been and what we have done. All this is stored in devices, and thus available to the police even if we exercise our right to remain silent. Where were you last Thursday at 10 PM? Do you know Mr John Doe? What's the nature of your relationship with Ms Jane Doe? Have you purchased any chemicals lately? Do you own a gun? Have you traveled to Boston during the last month? Have you ever communicated with These are all questions that an investigator could ask you. And all may still be answered by data in your devices and clouds even if you exercise your right to remain silent. So has the Fifth Amendment lost its meaning? Would the original makers of the amendment accept this situation, or would they make an amendment to the amendment? The situation is pretty clear for social media and cloud storage. This data is stored in some service provider’s data center. The police can obtain a warrant and then get your data without any help from you.(* Same thing with computers they take from your home. The common interpretation is that this isn’t covered by the Fifth Amendment. But what if you stored encrypted files on the servers? Or you use a device that encrypts its local storage (modern Androids and iPhones belong to this category). The police will in these cases need the password. This is something you know, which makes it protected. This is a problem for the police and countries have varying legislation to address the problem. UK takes an aggressive approach and makes it a crime to refuse revealing passwords. Memorized passwords are however protected in US, which was demonstrated in a recent case. Biometric authentication is yet another twist. Imagine that you use your fingerprint to unlock your mobile device. Yes, it’s convenient. But it may at the same time reduce your Fifth Amendment protection significantly. Your fingerprint is what you are, not what you know. There are cases in the US where judges have ruled that forcing a suspect to unlock a device with a fingerprint isn’t in conflict with the constitution. But we haven’t heard the Supreme Court’s ruling on this issue yet. So the Fifth Amendment, and equal laws in other countries, is usually interpreted so that it only protects information stored in your brain. But this definition is quickly becoming outdated and very limited. This is a significant ethical question. Should we let the Fifth Amendment deteriorate and give crime fighting higher priority? Or should we accept that our personal memory expands beyond what we have in our heads? Our personal gadgets do no doubt contain a lot of such information that the makers of Fifth Amendment wanted to protect. If I have the right to withhold a piece of information stored in my head, why should I not have the right to withhold the same information stored elsewhere? Is there really a fundamental difference that justifies treating these two storage types differently? These are big questions where different interests conflict, and there are no perfect solutions. So I pass the question to you. What do you think? [polldaddy poll=9102679]   Safe surfing, Micke   Image by OhLizz   (* It is this simple if the police, the suspect and the service provider all are in the same country. But it can get very complicated in other cases. Let's not go there now as that would be beside the point of this post.  

September 30, 2015
Hillary Clinton, email scandal, phishing scam

A phishing scam may hurt Hillary Clinton’s career — could it cost you yours?

This email was one of five phishing scams found in the 6,400 pages of Hillary Clinton's emails released on Wednesday. While there's no confirmation that former First Lady fell for the scam, her political opponents are using it to attack her for the security risks of the unconventional private server she used while in office -- even though a recent report found that 1 of 7 emails received on official U.S. Defense Department servers were either spam, phishing or other malware attacks. Receiving such attacks is inevitable. Cyber criminals have long known that one the best ways to hack into something is to simply ask you for the password. This technique has long relied on the fact that most of are used to entering our credentials so if a site looks trustworthy enough, we'll just type our credentials. From there, the bad guys can use these keys to unlock our digital life. As we've become more savvy in recognizing untrustworthy emails like the one above, criminals have taken advantage of our growing desire to share information about ourselves online to pioneer a more advanced technique called "spear phishing," which usually arrives in the form of a personalized email from an person or business you have a relationship with. This sort of attack was pioneered to hack high-value targets like Clinton. The Russian-backed Dukes group used this method in its 7-year campaign against western interests and others. In our Business Insider blog, Eija offers an inside look at how the CEO of a Finnish startup was the victim of an attempted spear phishing. "However, anyone can be a target..." Eija explains. And if you work in the U.S. government your chances of being hit with a very personalized attack have greatly increased as a result of the recent hack of the Office of Personnel Management. “Every bit of my personal information is in an attacker’s hands right now,"Paul Beckman, the Department of Homeland security’s chief information security officer, said at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in September. "They could probably craft my email that even I would be susceptible to, because they know everything about me virtually.” Beckman said he regularly sends fake phishing emails to his staff to see if they fall for them, and “you’d be surprised at how often I catch these guys.”' Getting caught results in mandatory security training. But even after two or three rounds of instruction, the same people still fall for similar scams. “Someone who fails every single phishing campaign in the world should not be holding a [top secret clearance] with the federal government,” he said. “You have clearly demonstrated that you are not responsible enough to responsibly handle that information.” Beckman said he has proposed that those who prove they cannot detect a scam be stripped of their clearance, which could limit their career possibilities or even cost them a job. If you're the CEO of a startup, you recognize that security of your business is essential to your success. But if you're just an employee, your incentives for protecting intellectual property are nowhere as strong. Criminals only need one victim to make one mistake to succeed. So what are employers to do when education just isn't good enough? How about positive reinforcement for those who successfully avoid a scam? The truth is we're all only as secure as our training and focus. Organizations need to work on the best methods for developing both. Whether it's at work or at home or in the U.S. State Department, you're likely to be faced with a phishing attempt before long. Here's basic guidance from Eija on how to avoid being hooked: Be vigilant when entering your password anywhere Enable two-factor authentication Use Google’s built-in Security Checkup and Privacy Checkup tools Periodically review forwarding and mail filter settings, Connected apps & sites, Devices and Activities, shared files Disable POP and IMAP access if you don’t need them for a desktop or mobile client Cheers, Sandra

September 29, 2015