Identify Theft in the 21st Century

Identify theft is the illicit use of another person’s identify, usually to steal, by making false purchases, withdrawing money from an ATM or cash back purchase, or usurping an identify to gain a benefit otherwise unobtainable.

The most common mechanisms are credit card theft from lost wallets, rifled mailboxes and trusting your card to someone who copies down the information required to enter an online purchase.

After 9/11, President Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and Congress empowered it with the authority and the budget to prevent “bad guys” from hatching or executing terrorist plots. For the most part the American people support this, although most of us know very little about DHS beyond airport security measures. No less than twelve security organizations are involved in data collection and data mining across a vast array of records and online activities.

The private sector, through companies like Google, organize and catalog the world’s information. Millions of websites use “cookies” to remember impersonal details that improve customer support. For instance, Amazon “remembers” what you purchased and what you search for, and they use it to make suggestions for your next purpose. For the most part this information is harmless unless you are a ‘bad guy”.

Through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, we volunteer much more information about our behaviors and our actions. When you play games on social sites (e.g. Farmville or the array of “if you were an xxx what kind of xxx would you be” games) you are creating entries in a database that describe you in order to better serve advertising to you. This may benefit you, but it benefits Facebook and Zygna, etc. much more.

Smart phones connected to social media sites allow us to advertise our location, our buying habits, our friends and our actions recorded in image, video and voice. We are gleefully creating nuggets of information for the government mining operation.

Orwellian totalitarianism (George Orwell‘s 1984) is not a requirement for the manipulation of a society. We’re going down that path voluntarily because we get rewards as we go. Our shopping gets easier, our personal networks are more robust, our lives appear to be simpler despite a our addiction to gadgets and hyper-disruption.

But we are not out of the woods. All of this technology and all of this data enables mistaken and purposeful acts of identify theft. There are stories about two-year olds getting held up by the TSA because their names are on the “no fly list”. Duh, your name isn’t your identity, it’s just a set of letters assigned by your parents. If you Google your “letters”, you will likely get hits that really are about you or content you created. Your IP address (if you have cookies turned on) biases Google to rate you higher in the search result. But there will be hits for people with the same name that are not you. What if they are “bad guys” creating a trail of illegal activity that could trigger DHS to knock on your door, or put you on the “no fly list”.

What if they’re just “dumb guys” leaving a trail of sleeze or stupidity that is is mistakenly associated with you. Maybe a prospective employer or potential romantic “date” reads it and makes a snap judgement.  A fews years ago, I was turned down on a car loan because a county I never lived in had a lien for unpaid property taxes – on the “letters” that match my name. It was a bit of hassle to straighten out my credit  report, but at least I knew who to call.

But what do you do about reputation theft? Whether by accidental data match or malfesance, the damage can be substantial. Who do you call to correct it? How do you know when it happens? Data in the 21st century expands like entropy – how will we put the genie back in the bottle.

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