Commentary: How Blockchain Could Replace Social Security Numbers
In the wake of the Equifax breach and countless others compromising Americans’ privacy, one thing has become clear: It’s time to get rid of Social Security numbers.
While a string of digits on a paper card did the job in the 1930s, and got the government’s stamp of approval for identification purposes in 1972, it’s irresponsible for those nine numbers to continue to be the universal identifier for every part of our lives. We can do better; even the White House says so.
But the natural follow-up question—“What’s the replacement?”—is where things get complicated. We could have a digital, national ID card system like Estonia, but that’s proven to have its own security issues. We could use biometric technology to validate identities, using retina scans or facial recognition software, but these systems aren’t foolproof.
What about blockchain? Does the new, buzzy technology have the potential to one day replace Social Security numbers?
The best answer we have right now is: possibly. Blockchain is the technology behind encrypted, public ledgers for storing data that cannot be erased or changed without leaving a record. It is really good at controlling information and avoiding duplication, which makes it an interesting solution for governing identities. But it’s not a rip and replace for Social Security numbers. In my 20-year career in the technology industry, blockchain is one of the most intricate and unwieldy technologies I’ve seen, so a lot of work must be done to make it a workable backbone for identity management.
To get blockchain ready for primetime, collaboration between the private and public sectors will be critical. Project Jasper, a joint effort between the private sector and Canada’s central bank and payment systems operator over the past two years, is a good example of this type of work, and is a blueprint that the U.S. should follow if we ever want to see blockchain become a viable Social Security number replacement.
Looking ahead, here are three of the most pressing issues with blockchain we’ll have to address before we can consider it as a universal identifier.