Saturday, May 14, 2005

Identity theft can happen to consumers even when they are not consuming

Fears of mass identity theft struck again a couple weeks ago with the reported loss of hundreds of thousands of employees' records at one of the world's foremost media companies. The incident demonstrated that everyone is a potential victim of this crime.

Has Time Warner read its own publications this past year? Is the company aware of what has been reported regarding major breaches of data? Even at one of the world's largest media companies, supposedly a technology-savvy organization, employees are still vulnerable to identity theft.

On May 2, Bloomberg's Cecile Daurat, along with others, reported that the personal information of 600,000 Time Warner Inc. employees, both past and present, had been lost. According to the report, a container holding 40 back-up tapes has disappeared.

An employee has no choice but to relinquish valuable identifying information to her employer, exposing the data to the whims of lax security. Employers entrusted with this information should protect it as if it were their own.

Information continues to disappear elsewhere, and Time Warner is only the latest in this year's string of data breaches:

-On April 21, Linda Rosencrance of Computerworld reported an incident at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. The school informed 19,000 students, alumni, and faculty that their personal information had potentially been compromised. Recent weeks have seen similar incidences at Tufts University and Boston College.

-On April 20, Emily Fredrix of The Associated Press reported that Ameritrade Holding Corp. had notified 200,000 current and former customers of the loss of a backup tape containing their personal information.

-On May 13, The Duluth News Tribune quoted me in one of many articles that have chronicled a March 2005 incident of identity theft involving a DSW Shoe Warehouse database.

We are witnessing a freefall. Data is dropping out of sight left and right.

In most of these cases, the official communique to customers follows a theme. This theme says the data breach poses no known threat to customers' identities. This theme is wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, on May 2, Red Herring reported on the latest findings out of the SANS Institute, which found more than 600 new Internet security vulnerabilities.

High technology is forcing us to rethink the way we identify people and safeguard important information from crooks. Right now, the bad guys are winning. We need a uniform response from government and industry immediately to combat the threat before identity theft cripples our economy and irrevocably shatters people's trust in longstanding institutions.


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