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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 1, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 13
New System of IDs To Be Implemented

Measure is part of JHU policy to reduce use of SSNs

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

X53-7K4. What is this? It could be you. As part of an ongoing effort to limit the internal use of Social Security numbers, the university will soon create unique identification numbers for all Johns Hopkins affiliates so that they can be identified in a more secure and protected manner.

In the first quarter of 2004, the university, through the Johns Hopkins Enterprise Directory, will randomly generate six-character alphanumeric identifiers for all JHU faculty, staff, students and alumni.

This unique ID number, or UID, is intended for Johns Hopkins internal business purposes only and will over time be integrated into all electronic systems that track and provide information, including admissions.

Whenever possible, the UID will be used in place of a person's Social Security number for the purposes of identification. For example, if two or more students have the same name, the UID will be used to tell them apart.

Social Security numbers, however, will still be used as an "official, protected piece of information" for several university-related purposes, said Michael McCarty, chief networking officer for Hopkins Information Technology Services. He said that for financial aid, student transcript and employee tax identification purposes, Social Security numbers will continue to be the primary identifier.

The measure is in keeping with a Johns Hopkins policy, outlined in a May 2003 letter, that states "it is necessary that the university take steps to limit the use of student SSNs to those circumstances in which no alternative exists to authenticate identity." The policy letter--signed by Steven Knapp, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and Estelle A. Fishbein, vice president and general counsel--went on to say that "to safeguard against inadvertent disclosure of student SSNs, at the earliest opportunity the university will introduce a new unique identification number system to replace its current reliance on SSNs as student identification numbers for day-to-day university activities."

The policy came in response to student concerns of "inappropriate uses" of their Social Security numbers by members of the administrative staff and faculty, including the posting of grades by these numbers.

In order to safeguard against identity theft, Social Security numbers must be protected and treated as private information, said McCarty, who served on a universitywide committee that was formed last fall to examine the use of the numbers. Similarly, a UID will not be used for posting grades.

In addition to the creation of UIDs, the university has taken other measures to curtail the use of Social Security numbers:

SSNs are no longer used for identification at Homewood's Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center.

Beginning this spring semester, only the last four characters of the SSN are being used for general access and reporting to the current student information system; the practice will be discontinued when the new student information system is implemented.

The university continues to assess business processes, paper documents and systems that utilize the SSN in order to identify and correct instances in which the number is not appropriately used and protected.

Susan Boswell, dean of student life at Homewood and a member of the committee that is examining Social Security number use, said that the identity theft problem isn't unique to students and everyone is vulnerable.

"It just became too much of a habit, always asking for a Social Security number, even when it wasn't necessary," Boswell said. "I see the creation of these new identifiers as just another step in the right direction. In terms of how students will feel about this measure, I'm betting that this is a much faster solution than they expected in response to their concerns."

McCarty said that Hopkins ITS personnel have reviewed the requirements of the forthcoming ISIS and HopkinsOne systems to ensure that the generated UIDs can be integrated into both.

ISIS, a Web-based system to be implemented sometime in 2005, will effectively store in one place the records of all current full-time and part-time Johns Hopkins students. HopkinsOne is a Web-based system that will tie together and streamline selected business functions and is scheduled to be phased in from 2006 to 2008.

McCarty said that other Web-based communication tools, such as Web CT, also will migrate to the new UID over the next several years.

"Over time, these unique identifiers will become widely used and will be a piece of information that everyone will want to use and remember," he said. "But their use will come in stages, and not hit all at once."

The Applied Physics Laboratory already employs a unique identifier, and efforts were made to ensure that its numbers would not be replicated.

McCarty said that the process of UID generation will be tested during the next month. He said that sometime early in 2004 individuals will log into JHED to find their new UID number.

"Every person associated with Hopkins will get one" he said. "And once they do, that number will be with them for life."


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