Let's guess each other's Social Security Numbers, for fun


True story: I didn’t even know my Social Security Number until my freshman year of college, when it was used as my dorm building’s PIN. Type in the PIN, and the little gate would open. It seemed a little odd at the time, yes, and today’s news that, with a little elbow grease, someone can guess a person’s Social Security Number quite easily, well, that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence vis-à-vis “the system.”

It’s like this. A team of researchers, out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, have figured out a way to guess a person’s Social Security Number knowing only basic info: a date of birth, a home town, etc. The first five numbers of one’s SSN can be correctly guessed 44 percent of the time, per 160,000 people born between 1989 and 2003. That’s in one attempt. In two attempts, you’re looking at 60 percent of people’s SSNs being guessed. In fewer than 1,000 attempts, which isn’t all that much when you consider you can merely write a small program to do all this work, the researchers could guess all nine numbers for 8.9 percent of the people in the data set.

In short, with a little bit of know-how, someone, if he were so inclined, could guess your social security number, provided he knew your date of birth and the location where you acquired your SSN. (SSNs are doled out based on date of birth and location, is the implication here.)

What does this mean for you in your everyday life? Probably not too much, but it does highlight the insanity of using your SSN as any type of identification number. As a matter of fact, the Social Security Administration has, since time immemorial, discouraged the use of the SSN as a personal identifier. But that doesn’t stop lazy companies from doing it, no sir.

Be sure to tune in next week for a silly contest: guess Peter Ha’s SSN, and win a USB thumb drive!