Last week, the White House announced $9 million in funding for five pilot projects as part of its National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace initiative, a federal effort to establish a secure, universal online identity ecosystem led by the private sector.

Critics say any kind of top-down identification system would be a security risk and an encroachment on civil rights. But the fact is that the United States already has a universal ID: the unique nine-digit number issued to US citizens and residents by the Social Security Administration, which has turned out to be no less than a gift to identity thieves. While Social Security numbers work pretty well for tracking Social Security, they weren't designed to be secure.

Americans are reluctant to institute a national ID. But in the absence of one, the market adopted a poor substitute — and the millions of Social Security numbers for sale online for cheaper than a cup of coffee is one of the consequences of that disastrous indecision.

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