With mass data breaches and identity theft rampant in America, one thing is clear: the way we try to protect ourselves isn’t working. It is too late to make most personal data secure, as it had already been compromised. A more fundamental change is needed: we need to change the way we identify ourselves.
Currently, the most valuable piece of identifying information is your social security number, but we know from all the breaches that this data is no longer safe. Part of the problem is that social security numbers were not originally intended to be identifiers. They were just there to track how much money people made and to figure out benefit levels. Early social security cards even said “For social security purposes, not identification.” In the early 1960s, the IRS starting using them for identification, banks and other institutions followed their lead and now social security numbers are necessary for many important things.
Technology is offering us a better way. Someday, you may need only one thing to verify your identity: yourself. Biometrics uses human characteristics (such as fingerprint or iris scan) for identification. These would serve as better identifiers because they are unique to each individual and can’t be lost. They are also more difficult to steal. When your fingerprint (or other characteristic) is scanned, it stores a mathematical representation of the image that is very difficult to reverse engineer and reproduce.
As this technology becomes more reliable and less expensive, we are already seeing it creeping into everyday life. For example, many phones and laptops can be unlocked with a fingerprint. Some banks are using speaker recognition to detect fraudsters. They screen calls to try to match the speaker with suspected criminals.
Biometrics seems to be the clear next step in verifying identity, but for now, we are still largely relying on our archaic social security numbers. As these are easily compromised, you should monitor your credit report for any accounts that you did not open, or hire a service to do it for you. ID theft monitoring services alert you when a new account is opened in your name, or to certain changes on your credit report.