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Give the Old Number a Rest

Controversy swirls around the issue of creating a national ID card for all Americans. But there should be no controversy about the need to rethink thoroughly what has become a de facto ID – the nine-digit Social Security number.

The pervasive use of that number has helped feed a torrent of identity theft. If people can pilfer a number – using the Internet or simply digging through trash – they can sometimes gain access to bank accounts and credit cards.

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Withdrawing that key is no easy task. Since their inception decades ago to provide access to government benefits, Social Security numbers have become convenient customer ID passwords for all kinds of businesses – particularly the banking and credit industries, which have opposed efforts to restrict use of the numbers.

At the same time, schools, universities, the military, and many other agencies regularly attach individuals' Social Security numbers to documents. Such records often are publicly available.

At least a rollback has started. A number of colleges and universities, worried about an increase of identity theft on campus, have stopped the practice of putting Social Security numbers on student documents.

Some states are headed in a similar direction. California passed a law last year, just taking effect, that requires companies to stop printing the numbers on documents and ID cards for new customers.

There are some bills in Congress to restrict Social Security number use, though they've languished, even with the added concern since last September's attacks about identity theft by would-be terrorists.

One expert, Lynn LoPucki of UCLA, argues that the numbers' use for identification is so pervasive they can never be made more secret. The key, professor LoPucki suggests, is to bar their use as passwords by companies. Then thieves would have little to gain by stealing them. The numbers are dysfunctional as passwords anyway, LoPucki adds, because passwords often need to be changed and Social Security numbers are nearly impossible to change.

The US has been intensely debating whether to have some kind of national identification system since 9/11. There's much talk about enhanced driver's licenses that would be more uniform nationwide, for instance. Whatever solution surfaces, it should include taking the pressure off the venerable, overburdened, and abused Social Security number.