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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
November 19, 2018

9/20/2017 2:13:00 PM
'I gotta be me,' unless someone else is
For the Daily News

I found myself at Southern Illinois University in 1966 and discovered I was a number, not a name.

My presence there was the result of choosing between basic training and deciding to continue my education despite my Robinson High School counselor advising me I was "not college material." He recommended I learn a trade. I had already been working the trades for several years by then, and the future it held did not seem especially attractive.

I had not been a scholar at RHS, more of a sleeper in the back row, the sort of smart-ass kid who worked nights and only went to school because they made me. The draft was a real incentive, and I rode the bus to St. Louis with John Toliver at an ungodly early hour to stand in line and get poked and prodded and offered the chance to join the Marines, which I declined, and was shown the reality of what my future might become if I didn't snap out of it.

My first opportunity to do that was an English Composition 101 assignment of two typed pages about some problem on campus. We were to put our student IDs on the assignment instead of our names when we turned it in; those were our identifiers with the university, and conveniently, they used our Social Security numbers, using the justification that we already had it.

It looked like something to complain about to me so I spun out a tale of the possible misuse of our identifiers by nefarious people and then turned to the more irksome aspect of it to me at the time, which was that I had been made a nobody.

There were 25,000 students on campus that year, so I literally was nobody, and most of my classes had 300 or more students in them. We didn't have the best instructors, we had grad assistants who were overwhelmed by the numbers and simply filling the troughs with the required fare we were to digest and give back to them to be credited with having learned whatever was being offered.

I titled my piece "Ego - And Then My Student Id Number," which I won't put here because I am rather guarded about it and have been for some time. The effort netted me an average grade, so apparently it was not a novel complaint nor especially well stated. I had to get better or learn to salute and made the effort to do the former as the latter was unattractive to me.

Fortunately, a lottery was initiated that permitted some lucky individuals to live full lives rather than risk having them cut short by political mistakes, and I was one of them.

I graduated and went on to become a teacher and still teach today. To get that going again recently after having been "retired," I had to request a transcript from SIU and was glad to discover they had stopped using Social Security numbers as student identifiers. I suspect this was out of some concern that their security might be compromised if everyone knew them.

The bad news now is that it's too late for that. Thanks to the World Wide Web and its wonderful ability to connect anyone with everything, we have the Equifax breach of nearly half of the country's personal identifiers, including their Social Security numbers. The only thing for you can do about it is assume that someone has yours and take affirmative steps to protect yourself. I won't restate them here, but if you haven't seen them you should look for them.

If you don't, they may get your tax refund before you do, or get credit cards and max them out in your name, or do any number of other fraudulent things in your name and wreck your future in the process. No, we can't catch them and punish them, although someone will pretend we can. The numbers are out of the barn now, and there's no use in pretending a better lock on the door is the answer. We have to stop using Social Security numbers as personal identifiers - just like I suggested 50 years ago.

Hey, it's just a number, I have a name; and an address. In my case that's P.O. Box 1, Robinson, Ill. Get to know me before you lend me money or think that I'm about to buy a first-class ticket to Dubai. That actually happened recently, and it was a routine check of my credit card statement that found it. The result was satisfactory but the exchange was ludicrous.

"Yes, I am sure that I did not authorize a $1,200 charge to my card for a first class ticket on Emirates last month and no, I don't care if whoever did had a card with my name on it."

They agreed to take the charge off after I suggested they check my picture against the guy who boarded the plane in my name. They wrote the loss off and I was not charged. It seemed expensive to me, but apparently its just part of the status quo.

Computers are faster than humans at doing things, and we've grown to depend on their impersonal processing of information as a necessity of doing business in the modern world. That's always been a risky proposition and now it's even more so as a consequence of this breach.

We must look ahead and skip over this ancient issue of who's who and how we know that so we can move forward with confidence to a more secure future.

Facial recognition now turns on the latest iPphones and speeds up boarding at airports, but I'm seeing a different face in the mirror these days than the one that was there just a few years ago, and don't want to miss my flight because of it or because I grew a beard or shaved one off. No, there must be some other way for people, all people, to uniquely identify themselves in an easily confirmable way.

Since we live in a free society, we could just let them pick their own unique identifier and get themselves licensed in the same way that we license vehicles with vanity plates, then tattoo it on their nose or somewhere easily visible even if you're wearing a burka. Then anyone else attempting to identify themselves with your identifier would be flagged, tagged, and arrested for fraud.

I'll go first since I thought of it. I think I'll call myself... "me."

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