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University phasing out use of Social Security numbers

by Richard Veilleux - October 11, 2005

The practice of using social security numbers as the primary identifier on dozens of forms, files, and records at UConn is being phased out, as University officials work to ensure that identity thieves will not find a treasure trove of information through University computers or records.

Senior administrators have been discussing the issue since last year and, in August, established a policy that tightly restricts use of the nine-digit numbers, except where necessary for employment records, payroll, financial aid, requirements from other agencies, and several other limited areas. The policy covers faculty, staff, and students. A campus-wide committee was formed to continue the work.

“If we can limit the use of social security numbers to just the essential areas, and secure those areas, I think everybody will feel more comfortable,” says University Registrar Jeffrey von Munkwitz-Smith, who is chairing the committee. “I think we all realize it’s a potential problem.”

Already, a number of departments have eliminated the use of the identifying numbers after researching their units and finding paperwork carrying student or employee numbers. Other areas, including the Department of Residential Life and Parking Services, have stopped using social security numbers as their primary identifier.

Von Munkwitz-Smith says University officials made a deliberate decision more than four years ago to avoid using social security numbers as an identifier when the PeopleSoft student records system was installed.

But there’s a long way to go, he says. The committee’s progress can be followed on the web at www.ssn.uconn.edu. The page includes a link to the new policy.

“There has been activity [limiting the use of social security numbers] in a number of areas, but it’s going to take time and a lot of effort” to complete the work, von Munkwitz-Smith says.

“At this point, we’re in the data-gathering stage, trying to figure out the scope of what we’re dealing with. We’re less worried about a timeline. Let’s see how much work we have to get done, and get some short-term and quick wins as we work on the large tasks.”

One of the “quick wins” is an agreement with the UConn Foundation that they will no longer access students’ social security numbers, von Munkwitz-Smith says. The numbers provided a unique identification for the Foundation, allowing it to keep track of alumni for fund-raising purposes.

Anecdotally, von Munkwitz-Smith says he has found a number of other areas that are phasing out the numbers’ use. Some systems, such as the One Card identification system, will not be able to eliminate the social security number until a replacement – a new primary identifier – has been created.

“We’re looking at several possibilities, including substituting the PeopleSoft number for students or employee numbers for faculty and staff, or creating a numeric representation of the alpha-numeric NetID, but each poses it’s own set of difficulties,” he says. “And at some point, we may require some funding, for instance if we have to re-card the entire population.”

The committee also is looking at other universities to assemble a list of best practices for protecting confidentiality in areas where the numbers must be used.

There also are questions regarding the compatibility of various systems, such as those departments that use PeopleSoft to identify users and systems that rely on a NetID.

“We’re facing some complex issues,” von Munkwitz-Smith says, “but we’re seeing a lot of cooperation.”

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