Saturday, April 21, 2007

Feds fail privacy test--again

Oh joy. Yet another fumbling breach of personal privacy by our fearless leaders:

The Social Security numbers of up to 63,000 people who received Agriculture Department grants have been posted on a government Web site since 1996, but they were taken down last week.

Since 1996? The feds posted identity-theft bait for over ten years, even while burdening the private sector with burdensome and bureaucratic privacy "protections" like HIPAA?

Why am I not surprised?

The problem, of course, isn't just that some federal bureaucrats blindly went about the business of posting personal information, including Social Security numbers, without thinking about the consequences. That, frankly, is only to be expected of the sort of people who make a life of government employment. The real problem is that Social Security numbers have become such potent identifiers for tagging and tracking Americans that simply revealing them can be potentially dangerous.

If you were to deliberately devise a scheme more fraught with peril for privacy, it would be hard to beat a system that links all of the legally revealing and financially sensitive data of people's lives through a common identifying number that can be exploited by anybody who gains its possession. But we can't even point to a clear-cut villain. As far as I know, nobody set out to make the Social Security number as all-powerful and malignant as it is; we just sort of stumbled into that situation. Government officials have a seemingly innate desire to centralize their control and oversight of information about the world through which they stumble, and the Social Security number was a handy for achieving that end.

The fact that it was a really stupid idea was just an added bonus for people accustomed to meeting the "good enough for government work" standard.

I don't know that the situation is fixable short of weaning the government off its urge to control everything and everyone--and really, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Maybe the only solution at hand is to feed the government's bottomless appetite for information with as much inaccurate nonsense as possible. The Social Security number might be a bit less of an inviting target for thieves and bureaucrats if the information it reveals can't be relied upon.



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