Risk
7/7/2009
05:48 PM
Connect Directly
Google+
LinkedIn
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Social Security Number Prediction Makes Identity Theft Easy

Posting your birthday on Facebook could help identity thieves predict your Social Security number, a new study finds.

Online information about your date of birth and place of birth could allow identity thieves to guess your Social Security number, according to a paper by two Carnegie Mellon researchers.

The paper, published on Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, details the "unexpected privacy consequences" that arise when disparate data sources can be correlated.

The authors of the study, Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information technology and public policy at CMU's Heinz College, and Ralph Gross, a postdoctoral researcher, demonstrate that Social Security numbers can be predicted using basic demographic data gleaned from government data sources, commercial databases, voter registration lists, or online social networks.

Knowing a person's Social Security number (SSN), name, and date of birth is typically enough to allow an identity thief to impersonate that person for the purpose of various kinds of fraud. Thus, being able to easily guess a person's SSN presents a significant security risk.

Acquisti and Gross estimate that 10 million American residents publish their birthdays in online profiles, or provide enough information for their birthdays to be inferred.

The accuracy with which SSNs can be predicted in 100 attempts varies, based on the availability of online data and on the subject's date and place of birth, from 0.08% to over 10% for some states.

Such odds may not seem particularly dangerous, but an attacker could use a computer program to guess and guess again, over and over. With 1,000 attempts, a SSN becomes as easy to crack as a 3-digit PIN. Among those born recently in small states, the researchers were able to predict SSNs with 60% accuracy after 1,000 attempts.

In their paper, Acquisti and Gross pose a hypothetical scenario in which an attacker rents a 10,000 machine botnet to apply for credit cards in the names of 18-year-old residents of West Virginia using public data. Based on various assumptions, such as the number of incorrect SSN submissions allowed before a credit card issuer blacklists a submitting IP address (3), they estimate that an identity thief could obtain credit card accounts at a rate of up to 47 per minute, or 4,000 before every machine in the botnet got blocked.

Based on an estimated street price that ranges from $1 to $40 per stolen identity, identity thieves in theory could make anywhere from $2,830 to $112,800 per hour.

As a temporary defensive strategy, the authors recommend that the Social Security Administration fully randomize the assignment of new SSNs, instead of randomizing only the first three digits, as the agency recently proposed. But, they note, such measures would not protect existing SSNs.

They also suggest that legislative defenses, such as SSN redaction requirements, won't work either.

"Industry and policy makers may need, instead, to finally reassess our perilous reliance on SSNs for authentication, and on consumers' impossible duty to protect them," the paper concludes.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Current Issue
Dark Reading Tech Digest, Dec. 19, 2014
Software-defined networking can be a net plus for security. The key: Work with the network team to implement gradually, test as you go, and take the opportunity to overhaul your security strategy.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2014-8142
Published: 2014-12-20
Use-after-free vulnerability in the process_nested_data function in ext/standard/var_unserializer.re in PHP before 5.4.36, 5.5.x before 5.5.20, and 5.6.x before 5.6.4 allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code via a crafted unserialize call that leverages improper handling of duplicate keys w...

CVE-2013-4440
Published: 2014-12-19
Password Generator (aka Pwgen) before 2.07 generates weak non-tty passwords, which makes it easier for context-dependent attackers to guess the password via a brute-force attack.

CVE-2013-4442
Published: 2014-12-19
Password Generator (aka Pwgen) before 2.07 uses weak pseudo generated numbers when /dev/urandom is unavailable, which makes it easier for context-dependent attackers to guess the numbers.

CVE-2013-7401
Published: 2014-12-19
The parse_request function in request.c in c-icap 0.2.x allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service (crash) via a URI without a " " or "?" character in an ICAP request, as demonstrated by use of the OPTIONS method.

CVE-2014-2026
Published: 2014-12-19
Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in the search functionality in United Planet Intrexx Professional before 5.2 Online Update 0905 and 6.x before 6.0 Online Update 10 allows remote attackers to inject arbitrary web script or HTML via the request parameter.

Best of the Web
Dark Reading Radio
Archived Dark Reading Radio
Join us Wednesday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time to hear what employers are really looking for in a chief information security officer -- it may not be what you think.