Is it Time to Say Goodbye to the Social Security Card?

At almost 80 years old, it may be time for Social Security cards to get a makeover.

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They’re flimsy, easily lost, and every American is supposed to have one.

A Social Security card remains an essential form of identification in the U.S., and a group of technology companies are lobbying the government to upgrade the paper cards to a more substantial and secure material.

Companies like Gemalto, XTec, NXP, Oberthur and Infineon are proposing a new plastic card featuring a security chip that is part of the immigration overhaul working its way through Congress.

“What we're looking to do is can we take the current card, bring it up to today's standard, modernize it, incorporate a chip into that card and make it so it can be read electronically,” said Kelli Emerick, executive director of the Secure ID Coalition. “That allows a lot of security and it allows the ability to verify somebody as who they claim.”

If adopted, the government would issue all Americans a new, secure card that businesses would use to validate new hires.

Cardholders would set an individualized, personal identification number to the card and be entered into the government’s database.

Businesses would buy a card reader, retailing for around $20, that connects to the federal database and scans the Social Security card to tell an employer if the job applicant is in the country legally.

“By having a card and requiring the card to be shown, and then requiring the card to be authenticated, what you're doing is you're creating layered security into the system that prevents that fraud from happening going forward,” said Emerick. He adds the the upgraded cards cost between $2 and $3.

However, one cyber security expert worries the proposed system could be vulnerable to hackers. “The information will have to be maintained in a database, which can be hacked; the information can be captured in transmission; the card readers can be hacked; even the chips can be hacked,” says Brian Finch, head of Dickstein Shapiro’s Global Security Practice.

However, the tech companies disagreed, saying the technology is proven and uses government-grade encryption techniques. “Smart Cards are proven, secure, privacy enhancing, cost effective, self-contained single chip computers which deploy hundreds of counter measures to detect miss use and ensure integrity and confidentiality of information for critical applications,” says Neville Pattinson, vice president for government affair at Gemalto. “The security and reliability of smart cards has been proven by their success in hundreds of large scale deployments around the world.”

Among other concerns are the logistical problems of issuing more than 300 million Americans new Social Security cards and ensuring they all understand how the new system works.

“If we do move forward with a plan to modernize the Social Security card in this way, this won't be something foreign to anyone and it'll be, ‘Oh yeah, I just got mine from my bank and it looks the same,’” says Emerick. “So we'll be using a consistent, modern technology approach to really securing Social Security.”

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