Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Reporting on data breaches and the social security number debate

October 31, 2017

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In the wake of database breaches, the debate on Social Security numbers is heating up. Here's how to report on it. (Image by "ComMkt" via Pixabay, CCO Creative Commons)
In the wake of database breaches, the debate on Social Security numbers is heating up. Here's how to report on it. (Image by "ComMkt" via Pixabay, CCO Creative Commons)

The massive Equifax data breach continues to fuel debate on how to stop the use of Social Security numbers for personal identification. Even Richard Smith, the former CEO of Equifax, the credit-reporting agency that exposed the SS#s of over 145 million Americans, joined the chorus. At a recent Congressional hearing he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that it’s time for “think[ing] beyond” the concept of a Social Security number as a secure identifier, as reported by Bloomberg.

But after decades of exposure, does it make any difference to stop the use of Social Security numbers? Are lawmakers willing to impose regulations on the credit-reporting industry? How can consumers protect themselves from the next data breach? Business reporters can follow this developing story by looking into one or more of these story angles:

The politics of consumer privacy

“In the face of ubiquitous online security threats…Congress must act to put the power back in the hands of consumers,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a co-sponsor of the latest bill on protecting consumer data security, as reported in The Hill. But that’s not going to happen, say cynics who have heard the argument for years. Dig into the details of the proposed bill in Washington, the Data Breach Accountability and Enforcement Act of 2017, introduced on September 28. Then call your local and state political representatives and ask when or if (and why or why not) they are proposing any legislative measures to protect consumer data security in your area.

The explosion in data breaches

As 2017 draws a close, go behind the numbers on the runaway growth of data breaches to report a story with real sticker shock. Data breaches reached an all-time high in 2017, increasing 44.7%, said Eva Velasquez, President and CEO of Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC). The reason, according to Adam Levin of CyberScout: “Most companies in this country still have not embraced a corporate culture where privacy and security are core values.”

Read about the five data security ideas Bloomberg reported on during the Equifax hearing as a starting point for interviewing experts on how data breaches can be secured. Call consumer and cyber experts, including: Beth Givens at The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (619-298-3396); Jay Jacobs, a data security expert now at BitSight Technologies (617-245-0469); Adam Levin (646-649-5755); and Eva Velasquez (888-400-5530).

Get readers ready for the next breach

Business reporters can help readers secure their data by developing a graphic “hit list” of tips for consumers. Use this one from the Federal Trade Commission as a starting point:

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