The Fruitlessness of Opting-Out   2 comments

(I just posted this over at Schneier’s blog as a comment to a particular thread, and thought it was worthy of being a post here as well.)

Five years ago, I had reason to sign up for cellular service. I was going to change jobs, and my company-provided cell phone would obviously not be going along with me.

I did a consumer-savvy survey of my future workplace and the city in which I live to determine the service with the best coverage in the areas I was likely to frequent, and chose Cingular as my provider.

Strolling into the Cingular store, I picked out a nice (cheap) feature-limited phone, walked up to the cash register, and was handed a service agreement form that included a field for “Social Security Number”. I politely informed the sales representative that I had no desire to provide my social security number either to the store or to the cellular service provider. The sales clerk (looking at me as if I had grown an extra head), told me that they required my social security number to run a credit check. I reiterated my desire to keep my SSN out of their corporate database, and asked if there was an alternative. “Sure,” he said, and continued doubtfully, “but you’ll have to give a $200 deposit to get service.” Not a problem, said I, provided I get the money back. The agreement said that the $200 would be held for 1 year, at which point the money (with standard at-that-time savings account interest) would be returned to me. Quite agreeable, I filled out the necessary paperwork, handed over my $200 deposit plus the amount for the phone, and walked out a happy man. 1 year later, as promised, I received a check for the $200 + interest, and I thought myself a satisfied customer.

Fast forward.

Recently, my phone (the second one I’d had since becoming a Cingular customer) started dying on me, so I decided to get a new phone. Coincidentally, Cingular mailed me one of those “We’ll give you a free phone if you sign on for another year” mailers, so I went and got a new phone. I was giving up my pager at work to cut down on the bat-utility belt nature of my daily garb, and decided to log into the Cingular (now AT&T) website and find out what my SMS address was so that I could replace my pager number in the various notification systems with my cell… I just needed to know the domain.

Surprise! AT&T/Cingular’s web site requires you to enter your cell phone number and the last four digits of your social security number in order to log into their site. How confounding, I thought, since I have never provided my SSN to this institution, I’ll have to go to the trouble of navigating a phone tree to find a simple answer to my question. Knowing phone trees, I typed in my phone number and the last four digits of my SSN hoping it would give me a “Whoops, we don’t have your SSN, call [this number] for web site activation, bypassing my need to call the more general 800 number and navigate my way to a human.

It logged me in.

I have never provided Cingular my SSN, nor AT&T, so they didn’t magically acquire this data upon some seamless corporate merger. I don’t know when Cingular went out and got my SSN, nor where they acquired it from (I’m presuming some data broker like ChoicePoint), but needless to say I am most thoroughly and entirely vexed by this situation.

Apparently, even shelling out money (albeit temporarily) for the privilege of staying out of a corporate database is a fruitless affair.

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Posted June 28, 2007 by padraic2112 in security

2 responses to “The Fruitlessness of Opting-Out

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  1. Shock, horror! I don’t think this has happened to me. Then again, I’ve taken so many loans and credit card offers that my SSN is probably in every banking database on the planet!

  2. Pingback: I’ll Take “Companies That Begin with ‘S’ for ‘Spyware’, for $2000″ « Pat’s Daily Grind

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