High-tech moguls have voluntarily included their Social Security numbers in filings documenting their stock ownership that were later made freely available on the SEC's Web site, as CNET News.com reported in 1997.
Fearing that the Net made it too easy to exploit personal information, the SEC revised its rules in June 1997 and said it would no longer accept Social Security numbers on those forms. Nonetheless, News.com found old filings--and in some cases documents filed after the rule change--that still include the numbers of corporate officers at public companies.
If the nine-digit numbers fall into the wrong hands, they can be used to obtain such information as current and previous addresses, employment histories, or credit reports--which, in turn, can unlock other private data such as bank account numbers.
In addition to Microsoft's chairman Gates and cofounder Paul Allen, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore and Gateway founder Ted Waitt are among the members of the billionaire club whose Social Security numbers remain easily accessible through the SEC's EDGAR database. The Social Security numbers of Gates, Allen, and Moore were found on forms filed before the summer of 1997, but Waitt's number was accepted on a February 1998 filing, after the SEC changed its policy.
Social Security numbers were created to track earnings and Social Security benefits. But the unique numbers are now used for much more, leading privacy organizations to argue that the SEC has a moral obligation to stop publishing them on the Net.
"The SSN is the way that everybody's financial records are kept together," said Jodie Beebe, a spokesman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
"If somebody gets a copy of your SSN, they can get utilities hooked up, rack up several credit cards, establish employment--and your credit report can be ruined," she added. "Identity theft can wreak havoc in your life."
Microsoft would not comment about the exposure of Gates's Social Security number, though privacy concerns are nothing new to the company. The software giant and Intel--its chipmaking partner in the Wintel PC juggernaut--found themselves at the center of recent computer privacy concerns when it was revealed that their products could be used to track Net users' activities.
In fact, anxiety over the increasing loss of privacy in the information age is at an all-time high, with many lawmakers and consumer advocates calling for industry and government to more closely guard personally identifiable information, which is solicited by Web sites, compiled by database creators or resold in digital format.
The SEC is also worried about inadvertently playing a part in identity theft or other privacy breaches.
"With the growth of the EDGAR database, and its availability to millions of viewers on the commission's Web site, the commission is concerned that these numbers are too readily available," the SEC stated in its June 1997 rule change. "The usefulness of Social Security numbers filers voluntarily provide on these forms is outweighed by the risk of misuse created by the disclosure of those numbers."
Still, the SEC has no plans to remove documents from its online archive that include the numbers, spokesman John Heine said yesterday. "We can't alter those forms. They are a matter of public record," he said.