Keep our Social Security numbers secure

In high school, most of us didn’t even know our Social Security numbers, and those of us who did were instructed to keep those precious nine digits under wraps. In college, though, all of that changed.

Carnegie Mellon students are trained to reveal parts — and often all — of their Social Security numbers, with little concern for their own personal privacy. Since Orientation, it’s been last-four-digits this, last-two-digits that. Getting into campus dorm rooms and registering for classes both require partial Social Security numbers. On top of that, students are often asked to divulge their entire Social Security number when a university employee asks for a student ID number.

That’s because social security numbers are student IDs, and this is a problem.

This calendar year alone, almost 70 colleges suffered computer security breaches, according to a Nov. 2 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education — we were one of them. Earlier this semester, a Carnegie Mellon professor’s laptop containing students’ Social Security numbers was stolen.

Obviously, the university cannot tag students solely by their first and last names — there would be plenty of repeats — but using Social Security numbers is not the only alternative.

According to The Chronicle, many colleges, including Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Colorado, have started using randomly generated student ID numbers instead of Social Security numbers. In fact, the use of Social Security numbers for student IDs is now illegal in over 30 states, though unfortunately not in Pennsylvania.

But regardless of the legal requirements, Carnegie Mellon can make the choice to switch to randomly generated student ID numbers. Although students can currently request randomly generated student ID numbers to use instead of their Social Security numbers, Carnegie Mellon should give every student a randomly generated number immediately. The administration will always need students’ Social Security numbers for financial information, but there is no need to use them to identify students on a general basis.

It won’t be easy. Colleges that make the switch have to use software to find the stored Social Security numbers and replace them with randomly generated ones, which proves to be an imprecise process. There’s also the problem of cleaning out professors’ computers and reassigning the ID numbers of alumni, who deserve to have their identities protected.