Americans love their independence… a nation of pioneers living out from under the eye of government … (except for all the government). As such, unlike many other countries, Americans don’t have a national ID card… …and even the idea of creating one is a political hot topic every election cycle. The results are always the same: we don’t need no ID card. But suspiciously, US citizens do already have this: a card with a unique number that many places will ask for to prove who you are. This is the Social Security card and number… …and it has become a quasi ID / unique password to identify citizens… …though that was never its intended use. For Americans, keeping this number secret is super important… because it’s the key to the government and banks to identifying you as you… … and losing control of it is the worst kind of identity theft that can happen. So how did Americans end up with a national ID number… … that isn’t one and a card terribly unfit to identify? It all started in the great depression of long long ago… … when the government created the social security program, … … a kind of mandatory pension: Citizens would be required to pay in during… … their working lives and withdraw in their retirement. The idea being that even if past-you didn’t save… … for the sunset years of future-you, the eventually old current you… … would still have something to live on. Now if you want to think of social security as a benefit… … the government provides or as a bank account that’s yours … … is… controversial, but either way this number was created … … to track what you put in and what you take out. Now, because this was just one government program… related only to your working life, you only needed to apply… …for a social security card when you actually started working. But over time, that changed and the younger you are, …the more likely you’ve had one from the moment of your birth… …despite babies’ worthlessness as child laborers. So why? Well it goes back to Americans’ having no national identity card… …with a national number, which makes it harder for institutions… … to keep track of people over their lives. With hundreds of millions of citizens, names and birthdays aren’t unique, people move, people marry, people change names. And if you’re trying to keep track of everyone, as say the United States Tax department might want to do, it can be a real problem, particularly in the pre-computer days. “Hey, wait a minute, look, at *this* number just lying around,” the tax department said. “It’s not supposed to be used as an ID number,” said the social security department. “There are security reasons you shouldn’t–” “Yoink!” Thus the tax department piggy-backed off of the work the social security department did assigning working adults a number, which made tracking taxes easier … and they highly encouraged parents to get a social security number… … for their children by tying it to a tax discount. Crazily, counting children for tax rebates used to run on the honor system. The US Tax Department told people: 1. We will give you a discount on your taxes for each child you have. And: 2. Write down your number of children, … …please be honest, we don’t have a way to check. Which was just asking, nay, begging people to lie. Which they did, birthing on paper millions of phantom children. But after requiring each kid to have a social security… … account number connected to a birth certificate… … before the parents could get the tax discount, … … all those phantoms faded away. This turned the social security number into a unique number… … that all citizens had right from the start, … and that made it easy for lots of other places like banks … … and schools and companies and landlords … … to also piggy back on the number as an easy way… … to keep track of people without having to come up… … with their own systems and to be able to exchange information… … about people between institutions. This is super useful for institutions, so, … …the desire of Americans to not have a national identity card led, … …somewhat inevitably, … …to the nearest thing available being used as a substitute… … which ended up being worse because the social security number… … was never designed to be used this way in the long, long ago. And you can tell because it has no security built into it. Ok, so there’s this neat trick that most ID numbers use… …where they can check themselves to see if they’re invalid. The simplest way is to have the last couple digits… … match the sum of the others. All kinds of ID cards and bar codes do this because it makes it impossible… … to enter an incorrect number in a computer, … … and makes it harder for fraudsters to guess valid numbers. This is why if you try to buy something online by guessing… … a credit card number, the website knows it’s invalid… … before you even click buy. But because the Social Security number started life… … in the long, long ago, it’s just a number… … with no self-checking security built in. Worse, if you’re born pre-2011 it’s not that hard to just guess … …most of the number: the first three digits are the state where the … parents applied for the card and the last four digits just count up in order, … … and the middle digits follow a regular pattern. So you can take your number, subtract one and that’s a valid number… … of someone who was probably born in the same hospital… … as you around the same time. Thus a fraudster who knows your time and location of birth… … can probably get the first five digits by just looking them up on a chart. Institutions ask for the last four digits as a code to identify you as you… … which means it’s not that hard to put together your number… … from a security leak anywhere or just by connecting a few puzzle pieces. The physical card itself is no help either: … just a literal piece of cardboard, … … depending on when it was issued, not even laminated. The social security department used to print… … ‘not to be used for identification’ on the cards… … as a futile attempt to stop institutions for asking for them as IDs, … …because there’s nothing identifying a person on the card. But eventually they gave up and removed these words… … because, unlike passports or driver’s licenses, … … you can assume all Americans will have this one card. All this means your social security card and number… … probably have less security than your library card, … …while being vastly more important. So it fails at being a secure number, … … it fails at being a good ID card, … … but at least it is universal* which is why people use it. Oh hello, asterisk, my old friend. No, of course not, this program isn’t actually universal: …not everyone has a social security account number, … …and not everyone pays into the program. If you want to get out of paying you’ll just need to: First: Never have received any social security benefits… … and give up your rights to getting any in the future. Which seems fair. In addition you must also: Be a member of a religion opposed to the idea of social security. Usually because it’s a kind of insurance, and insurance is a kind of gambling. That’s harder, but you could always just start… … your own religion if you were really serious about avoiding taxes. But your new religion must also: Provide for its elderly and dependent members. Which means you have to re-create a social security program of sorts … …in your religion (while also being against social security). But if creating a contradictory religion doesn’t daunt you… Lastly, it must have existed continuously since 1950. Which is a giveaway that this exception was written pretty much exclusively… for the Amish and Mennonites, … … and kills dead your plans unless you’re willing … … to undergo a serious change in lifestyle. It doesn’t stop there: …keep digging and you’ll find all sorts of other weird, weird exceptions: … including some railroad workers, or firefighters, or police, … … or teachers (but only in Chicago). Usually these are groups that in the long long ago… … were able to get out of the program at its creation date. So nothing’s ever straight forward. And that’s the deal with this social security card: … containing a national number for citizens that don’t want one, … … on an identification card, that fails at identification, … … given to all citizens — except when it isn’t — … …for a program that’s universal, except when it’s not. This episode has been brought to you by Squarespace,… … whether you need a domain, a website, or online store, … … make your next move with Squarespace. Does your brand new social security-avoiding religion… … need a website to spread the good news? You should use Squarespace’s all-in-one platform. Their beautiful templates will make it easy to set up, and… … there’s nothing to install, patch, or upgrade, ever. Squarespace is what I use for my personal website… … and I really think you should use it, too. Start your free trial today at SquareSpace.com … … and enter offer code “Grey” to get 10% off your first purchase.