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The Tally Ho

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

mother's maiden name

I'm reading a report on how to assess and evaluate, and it talks about creating a unique identifier: "often some combination of birth date and mother's maiden name or social security number." It's a small note, but it got me thinking about my unique identifiers and how I use them or allow them to get used. All through my youth, my mother used her mother's maiden name as an identifier to financial institutions and the like, and used my father's social security number when working with the government (he was in the Navy, so they didn't care much about her SSN.) Neither are ideal as identifiers; we all know at this point how easy it is to steal an identity with a SSN and a few other pieces of information, so we've gotten much more cautious about who we give it out to. In a large city, your mother's maiden name would be relatively difficult to track down, but in a small town it would be common knowledge. And in a small town bank, stealing someone's identity with their mother's maiden name would be ludicrous, since you would walk and everyone would know that you're not Betty Smith's daughter. But over the internet, or even over the phone, everything changes, and losing control of that information makes it easy for someone else to use it to gain access to your life.

That got me thinking about research in rural areas--if you went to the same high school that your mother did, and people know it, wouldn't that make you more casual about giving out your mother's maiden name in general? Wouldn't it make you suspicious of people who did research under the assumption that that information was private? Wouldn't you be concerned enough about your privacy to decline the study (or worse, lie) because you assumed that the data gatherer was somehow connected to your neighbor, your church, your employer? Many folks are wary of information gatherers anyway; I'm one of them, and do everything I can to thwart those obnoxious grocery-store "value" cards. But asking for a "private" passcode that you know is actually pretty public just undermines your credibility as a researcher.

Us academic types do so much data collection that we lose track of the idea that this information is sometimes quite valuable or damaging, financially or otherwise. And of course, we know all about confidentiality and keeping information private, but we often forget that the participant loses control of the information whether it stays safely stored inside the locked filing cabinet or published on the internet for all to see. It's a scary thing to give away information. We should all be more grateful when we are given the opportunity to collect and use it.

(crossposted to LJ blog)

UPDATE: What about families who retain or hyphenate mother's names? Is the "mother's maiden name" question becoming outdated because of that phenomenon? I haven't set up any accounts that ask for that info in a while, but I mostly use the computer and numeric passcodes to get at my information nowadays. Perhaps I should call my bank.


  • Trope, I can tell you that banks and credit card companies certainly do still use mother's maiden name as an identifier.

    You're right, though, about it being a not-very-private identifier in small towns. In my hometown, it's common knowledge that I'm not only a [my father's last name] but also a [my mother's maiden name] and a [my mother's mother's maiden name].

    I'd be interested in knowing what kind of research you're talking about in the second and third paragraphs. In what context are you, as a researcher, asking for this information? That will make a lot of difference to how it's viewed, I imagine. As would the phrasing; there's a world of difference between the stark "Mother's maiden name?" of a bank and the familiarity of "Aren't you a Lastname?" And, of course, there are many variations in between.

    By Blogger giddybug, at 3:56 PM  

  • I've been giving some thought recently to how the concept of "identity" has changed.

    Time was when it was fairly common to walk into a general store and get credit because the store owner, (who also ran the register, did inventory, and chased shoplifters with an axe handle) knew you by name and knew where you lived. That's true not only in rural areas, it happened in bigger cities too. "Who you are" was defined in terms of your relationships - a resident of here, a child of her & him, an employee of this guy, etc.

    Today we want to have these symbols that are (or may be) proxies of who you are - a card with your picture or signature, a fingerprint, a memorized code number.

    Neither system is simply better or worse - there was a lot of opportunity for petty tyrants to make people's lives miserable, especially if they owned the only store in town, or when used as a part of enforcing strict roles that might not meet our ideals today - racial, gender, class.

    But it's bizarre that a person can steal piece of paper or a card and become "you." A type of identity theft not widely publicized is criminal identity theft - they get arrested under your name, using your ID, but skip bail. Then you get arrested because "you" skipped bail. Those stories about shopkeeper tyrants and company stores may equal, but don't top, today's "identity" problems.

    The basic philosophical questions of "who am I" or "how do I know you really exist" have some highly practical effects.

    By Blogger Thomas Westgard, at 10:58 PM  

  • Aren't maiden names outdated because of the growing number of children being born out wedlock? I don't have any problem with it, but with the decline in marriage rates, surely it doesn't work as a security question anymore

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:31 PM  

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