Social Security Numbers: The Evolution of Data Insecurity

By Sarah Igo, Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University 

  Since the first Social Security numbers were issued in 1936, Americans’ relationship to their unique nine digits has charted shifting attitudes toward the federal government. The federal government has long relied on aggregate as well as individual data to distribute resources and administer benefits—for example, a person’s individual Social Security payments depend in part on changes in the overall cost of living across the country—and the SSN was widely a welcomed expansion.  

Spurred by the prospect of expansive benefits during the Depression, many Americans willingly entrusted private information to a new federal agency, helping create the modern administrative state. In the 1930s, Hollywood stars engraved their digits on gold bracelets, and a surprising number of citizens chose to permanently ink their numbers on their backs or their biceps. Working women and Black Americans prized the SSN as a badge of economic citizenship.     

In 1955, in reaction to the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and new computer data banks, the government was no longer seen as a trustworthy steward of Americans’ sensitive information. The Social Security number, once an emblem of economic security, became the foundation for data insecurity.  

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About the author:    

Sarah Igo is Andrew Jackson Professor of History, dean of strategic initiatives in the College of Arts and Science, and professor of law and political science. Her primary research interests are in modern American cultural, intellectual, legal and political history, the sociology of knowledge, and the history of the public sphere.