Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Twittering your details away?

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A posting in the Wall Street Journal‘s Digits blog last week identified one of the problems inherent with social networking sites: people give all sorts of sensitive details about themselves without thinking about it.

Like their social security numbers: a major tool in identity theft.

Not openly, of course, but – at least in the US; the position in the UK is less certain – social security numbers tend to follow patterns based around birthdates and hometowns.

A survey published by Alessandro Acquisti, Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and researcher Ralph Gross in Proceedings, the academic journal of the National Academy of Sciences in the US indicated that the authors were able correctly to guess the first five of the nine digits of an individual’s social security number 40% of the time just by knowing that individual’s birthdate and hometown. From there, the researchers were able to identify the full social security number 8.5% of the time in fewer than 1,000 attempts – a relatively low score (except to Charlie Eppes, perhaps) but whose significance is amplified by recent moves to protect identity by reducing the use of the first five digits of the Social Security number on certain public documents, in favour of the last four as identifiers. When the first five can be guessed so easily, this is clearly a wrong move since disclosure of the final four allows the construction of the full number very quickly.

So, if you’re a user of a social networking site, be careful what you let out about yourself: assume that someone is indeed looking over your shoulder as you type in those details…


Written by Calvin

13/07/2009 at 3:52 pm

Posted in Communications policy

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