10-Digit Key to Your Identity and Privacy

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The next time someone asks you for your cellphone number, you may want to think twice about giving it.  See A 10-digit Code to Your Private Life: Your Cell Phone Number, Steve Loher, New York Times, Nov. 12, 2016.

This NYT article discusses how companies use your cell phone number as a link to your private information. “It can be used to monitor and predict what you buy, look for online or even watch on television.”

“It has become ‘kind of a key into the room of your life and information about you,’ said Edward M. Stroz, a former high-tech crime agent for the F.B.I. who is co-president of Stroz Friedberg, a private investigator.

Yet the cellphone number is not a legally regulated piece of information like a Social Security number, which companies are required to keep private. And we are told to hide and protect our Social Security numbers while most of us don’t hesitate when asked to write a cellphone number on a form or share it with someone we barely know. . .

‘The point is the cellphone number can be a gateway to all sorts of other information,’ said Robert Schoshinski, the assistant director for privacy and identity protection at the Federal Trade Commission. ‘People should think about it.’

The use of the cellphone number in new, unanticipated ways has echoes in the history of the Social Security number, which was created in 1936. . . . Gradually, the simplicity of using a unique number to identify people encouraged the widespread use by other government agencies and corporations. That took off starting in the 1960s, when mainframe computers made it possible to create huge digital files on citizens and customers.

The spread of the Social Security number as a quick and easy identifier, found in all kinds of corporate and government databases, has smoothed the way for commerce. But there have been unintended consequences.

‘That Social Security numbers are so broadly used and often so poorly protected is a major cause of the current epidemic of identity theft,’ said Alessandro Acquisti, a computer scientist and privacy expert at Carnegie Mellon University.”