Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The discourse about identity theft and how to combat it is rife with misunderstanding over the concept of privacy

Advocates and elected officials continue to call for privacy rights in the wake of this year’s blitzkrieg of identity theft and related attacks. I advise those seeking solutions to the problem of identity theft not to view privacy rights as a panacea. People are, in fact, conflating the problem of identity theft and the quest for privacy rights.

The security of people’s identities and the idea of privacy are two different matters. We can achieve identity security, but the idea of ‘privacy rights’ clings to the mistaken notion that privacy exists in a high-tech world. Privacy is an unnecessary variable to stop thieves and safeguard consumers’ financial information.

This is a war not only against identity theft, but also against the misperceptions surrounding how to combat it. To strike a decisive blow against identity theft, those fighting this war must strive for security, not privacy.

An April 7 press release from the office of Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., illustrated how ideas about privacy permeate efforts at the highest levels to curb identity theft. In the release, Rep. Thompson, ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, called not only for better security of personal and financial information, but also for the protection of “individual privacy.”

Privacy is an illusion. Consumers, privacy advocates, and elected officials alike should never expect it. To try to ensure it is a misguided response however well-intentioned. Technology available for many years has rendered the notion of privacy quaint and antiquated. The information is already out there. Industry needs to realize that it is nearly impossible to protect consumers’ financial and identifying data from thieves.

We have a lazy system. It is an honor system set up for convenience’s sake. It promotes theft. We still rely on a person’s handwritten signature as a form of identification. It’s comical, actually.

Any unauthorized individual or organized criminal organization can open numerous accounts under anyone’s name at any time. We must upgrade and change, in fundamental ways, how we authenticate identities.

On March 15, CFO Magazine’s Peter Krass and, last week, MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan wrote articles providing useful overviews of the year’s debacles, thus far, in identity theft, the types that can occur, and various companies’ responses to the problem.

With security breaches occurring on a massive scale, we are in the midst of an identity theft apocalypse, a pandemic. We must employ every tool at our disposal and make serious changes to defeat the crafty identity thief, who masquerades in countless forms.


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