Warrior Battles Military's PII Misuse

Lt. Col. Gregory Conti: Why Do I Need My SSN to Get a Flu Shot?
"We use the Social Security number in every aspect, both mundane and sensitive," says Conti, coauthor of a report on the military's use of personal identifiable information. "It's everywhere, so we're courting disaster in how we us it."Army Lt. Col. Gregory Conti had to provide his Social Security number to get a parking sticker for his car at a military post. When traveling on Army business overseas, Conti had to produce travel orders that contained his SSN to border guards. Conti furnished his Social Security number and birth date to get a flu shot at an Army infirmary. And, during his recent tour in Iraq, his laundry bag - like those of most other service personnel - was stenciled with the last four digits of his Social Security number.

"We can't protect the Social Security number because we have to disclose it for every aspect of our military lives; it's a necessity," Conti, an Army intelligence officer and computer science professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, says in an interview with "Getting a flu shot, any reason I have to disclose my Social Security number or getting my laundry done?"

Conti contends the military's relatively lax policy on personal identity information places service personnel at high risk for identity theft. He and three fellow senior officers who also teach at West Point this week published a paper, entitled The Military's Cultural Disregard for Personal Information, that details the problem and offers solutions.

"We use the Social Security number in every aspects, both mundane and sensitive," Conti says. "We use the Social Security number as an identifier and as a password. Children 10 years old and up have a military ID card with their sponsor's Social Security number on it. It's in every facet of our lives. It's in our recycling bins. We shout it out in formation; we thumbtack it to bulletin boards. It's everywhere, so we're courting disaster in how we us it."

In the interview, with's Eric Chabrow, Conti:

  • Explains how and why the military began using Social Security numbers ubiquitously;
  • Provides examples on how personal identifiable information is misused; and
  • Offers suggestions how to fix the problem.

Conti is an out-of-the-box thinker, who along with Army Col. Col John "Buck" Surdu wrote an article proposing a fourth, coequal military branch focused on cybersecurity, which he described last year in an interview with Culture War: Making Cyber Career Military Friendly.

He earned a bachelor degree in computer science at West Point in 1989, a year before laptops became standard issue to all cadets, as he points out. Since then, Conti received master and doctorate degrees in computer science from Johns Hopkins University and Georgia Institute of Technology, respectively. He also has written two books on cybersecurity, Googling Security(Addison Wesley, November 2008) and <Security Data Visualization (No Starch Press, September 2007).

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