Read an Excerpt
1. Identity, Privacy, and Protection
One day when I was a little girl in the playground several of the bigger kids began to taunt me. "I can see your epidermis! I can see your epidermis!"
I was horrified and embarrassed. With tears in my eyes, I screamed back, "No you can't!" and ran home as fast as I could. It wasn't until my mother reassured me that epidermis only meant "skin" that I could stop being afraid.
In many ways, the current furor over identity theft and privacy invasions is reminiscent of that playground experience. A few vocal crusaders are shouting to get your attention. But are they asking you to worry about something that is really wrong, or are they telling you that you're exposed in a way that's basically okay? What exactly are the dangers? And are they real?
Identity theft-when a criminal knowingly uses identifying information about you to commit, aid, or abet any action that is already illegal-seems to be on everyone's mind. You can't pick up a newspaper or watch a newscast without hearing about it. The chances of having your identity stolen are about the same as having an item of personal property stolen-pretty impressive for a crime that was virtually nonexistent just twenty-five years ago.
You take precautions to protect your personal property from being stolen without even thinking about it. Today you must also take steps to protect your identity. But while it's easy to understand what it means to have a car radio or a wallet stolen, it's not so clear to many of us just exactly what identity theft is what actually is it that gets taken?
When you stop to define it, your identity is a bit bigger than news reports might suggest. It's not just your credit card number. It's more than your driver's license, or your Social Security number, or your computer passwords.
Think of everything that makes you who you are-the things that make you unique. The fact that you like the color blue. That you read the Sunday Times and watch CNN. That you graduated from Central High School with a B average and that you like brussels sprouts.
f0That's your identity.
Your identity is the sum of every bit of information about you that there is. It's every action you've ever taken, every preference you've ever expressed. It's everything that's ever happened to you, everything you've ever purchased, everything you've ever written down, and everything other people have written about you.
In short, it's anything at all that anyone can or might use to figure out who you are and how they will treat you as a result-whether they will date you or do business with you or sell you things or throw you in jail or accept your kid into a school.
The issue, you'll quickly discover, is that when it comes to keeping your identity safe, there is more to worry about than you might think.
Ask yourself what's worse: having your car stolen or having it totaled in an accident? Not much difference really, is there?
While identity theft has grabbed all the headlines, there is considerably less focus placed on identity damage-even though it's a potentially bigger problem. Ten million Americans are victims of identity theft each year, but many more of us are the victims of identity damage. In fact, it's likely that we're all victims to some degree or other-every single one of us.
Identity damage occurs when a piece of information about you is mischaracterized, misinterpreted, or just plain wrong. These mistakes might be inconsequential, but they can also be costly. An incorrect entry in your credit report, for example, could mean you pay a higher mortgage rate than you should. An error in a medical record could deny you insurance coverage or cost you a job.
Identity damage also occurs when a piece of information about you that is absolutely true negatively affects your life or your ability to get something you want. It's possible that you're even doing this kind of damage to yourself without realizing it. Filing too many insurance claims, sending a personal e-mail from work, even being unfriendly to your neighbors can all cause identity damage if you're not careful.
Identity theft, you see, is just the tip of the iceberg.
What Happened to Privacy?
Why didn't identity theft and identity damage pose much risk twenty-five years ago? Because back then, we had a pretty effective antidote: privacy. The technology to keep a watchful eye on all your actions just didn't exist. It was impractical to store much information about you, to collate it, and to share it with others. Practically speaking, even the things you did in public were really pretty private.
So, while your local grocer knew of your fondness for brussels sprouts (and who knows, may have even kept a card in a file cabinet that said so), it was doubtful that your banker or the grocer across town or even the brussels sprouts distributor knew anything about it.
But now they do.
Technology has put an end to privacy. Computers allow a lot more information to be organized and stored. These days information that could fill football stadiums with file cabinets can be stored on computer disks that cost under one hundred dollars and fit in the palm of your hand. The Internet has connected every one of these computers-as well as every cash register, gas pump, and ATM-to form one big readily-accessible pool of data. Miniature devices like cameras or sensors extended what information about us can be collected.
Software can sift though this vast information in the blink of an eye, analyzing, sorting, and detecting patterns. The result: your life is an open book to just about anyone who wants to read it.
Six hundred insurance companies in the United States can access your medical history from a central database. Two thirds of large companies perform background checks on job candidates. Four-and-a-half-million tons of junk mail are delivered to you and your neighbors each year.
Did you know that computers in your car monitor if you're speeding? That software predicts if you're likely to commit a crime? That doctors, banks, hotels, casinos, and apartment owners maintain blacklists? That invisible surveillance cameras photograph you more than seventy-five times each day-sometimes for security and sometimes to catch you in an embarrassing situation for broadcast on Internet Web sites?
Did you know that thirty-five federal agencies currently buy information collected on you by large profiling companies to gauge if you're likely to be a terrorist or drug smuggler? And the only way that you're not profiled is if you've never bought anything with credit, don't have a driver's license or a checking account or any kind of insurance, and have never held a job even filed a change of address with the post office.
Some would have you believe that the key to reducing identity theft and damage is to fight for more privacy, hoping to stem the tide of all this technology. But although most of us value privacy as a concept, when push comes to shove we rarely care about what people know about us. Until a line is crossed-and for most people that line is at the doorway to the bedroom-we're quite happy living in a world where Big Brother is a television show and not an Orwellian nightmare.
The key is to forget about trying to keep your identity private. It's a bit like worrying about showing your epidermis. You need to worry about what really matters.
What Really Matters
First, the Bad News
Consider what happened to these people:
A busboy in Manhattan contacted credit reporting agencies and obtained the Social Security numbers of two hundred CEOs and celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner, and Oprah Winfrey. Using their identifying information, he authorized transactions with banks and stock brokers that allowed him to swindle millions of dollars from his famous victims.
A man in Massachusetts was wrongly classified as an alcoholic by a medical information bureau and was charged higher premiums than he should have been for disability insurance; another woman was turned down for disability insurance altogether because her father's record incorrectly indicated that he had a hereditary disease.
After being turned down for many potential jobs, a man who was unsuccessfully looking for work found out that his Social Security number had been mistakenly assigned to a murder suspect. Another luckless job hunter discovered that he was marked as being wanted in a database of suspected arsonists and shoplifters. Unfortunately, both men were law-abiding citizens whose records got mixed up with those of true criminals. And both men lost their houses and families before the problems were uncovered.
A kindly grandmother was disturbed to receive phone calls from a prison inmate who made detailed references to her personal situation along with vulgar sexual suggestions. It turned out the inmate had been hired by a mailing list vendor to input information about catalogue purchasers into a master database. He chose the elderly woman at random as a plaything to harass.
Another woman-this one only nineteen years old-was stalked by a psychotic classmate who used an information tracking agency to find out where she worked. The classmate shot and killed her outside her place of employment.
We've all heard these stories or ones like them before, and most of the time we're shocked and appalled by them. The funny thing is, though, we don't really change anything that we do because of them. The reason we don't is that the people who share these stories with us-reporters and consumer advocates-have generally presented them as invasions of privacy.
But here's the catch. These stories aren't really about privacy at all. These stories are about mistakes and abuse and stalking. Their message isn't to worry if someone knows how often you buy corn flakes. Their message is that, once put into a database, information about you has a life of its own. People you don't expect-and maybe don't even like-can get to it. They can use it to hurt you in surprising ways. Or they may be well-meaning screwups who get your information wrong and make you look like a credit risk or a sucker.
The issue isn't privacy. It's protection.
Now, the Good News
On the face of it, all this information tracking and profiling sounds pretty bad. It certainly can be, but for the most part it's also a very good thing.
Think about buying a new car. For most of us, it's a pretty major investment. We don't usually have the money to pay for it outright, so we turn to the bank for a loan. Before the bank will give us the money, it needs to make sure that we're financially stable and that we'll keep making our monthly payments. Typically, after filling out a few short forms and waiting a couple of minutes-sometimes without even leaving the dealership-we're sitting behind the wheel enjoying that new-car smell.
Now, consider the plight of a poor guy in Beijing looking for his first car. He, too, can't afford to pay outright and needs a loan. And just as with our bank, his bank wants to make sure he's trustworthy and will make his monthly payments.
So how do they do it in China? Loan officers go to his job and interview his boss. They visit his home to see how he lives. They even talk to his neighbors to see what gossip about him is floating about. Pretty embarrassing, don't you think?
Banks in China don't have access to a magic computer file with this guy's credit history to determine whether he's a reasonable risk. The result: getting a loan is a nightmare, and less than 20 percent of car buyers even bother to apply for a loan, compared to 80 percent in the United States.
The existence of consumer reporting means that we don't have to endure such personal invasions to get credit, loans, or insurance. It also means that only data that is actually relevant to the transaction at hand gets considered. A banker doesn't look you up and down and decide that he doesn't like your nose ring. Instead, he gambles that your twenty years of good credit is f0more important. In an interesting twist, the existence of all this personal information tucked away in computers actually gives you a certain amount of anonymity and privacy protection.
The existence of data collection also means that we get more of what we want. Shops that track what we buy from them frequently reward us with free items. That eighth free cup of coffee tastes pretty good, doesn't it?
And we get what we want faster. Computers can look up information in seconds. Bored clerks in dusty rooms filled with index cards have been known to take weeks. Even though the government says it takes six weeks to get a passport, they can usually turn around applications in a few days now. Request a transcript from your school and it's in the mail the same day.
Computers can also follow information that a human simply wouldn't be able to, like how many cars are on each block in a city at a given point in time. The result is a quicker trip home, because traffic lights can be optimally timed to keep traffic flowing.
Information access helps prevent mistakes. Electronic ID tags on shipping containers used by airlines help eliminate lost luggage. Patients who need many different medications want doctors to have access to their entire medical history so that they can avoid becoming one of the 98,000 people killed each year by medical errors.
Many have argued that information is the grease of capitalism. We are better shoppers in a world where we can compare price for products, or access information on whose service isn't quite up to the standard they claim. The United Nations even goes a step further. It thinks information is the key to reducing poverty. In Bangladesh, entrepreneurs have purchased cell phones to rent to rural farmers that otherwise have no contact with the outside world. Farmers have been using these phones to determine crop prices in city markets. By learning what prices are being charged in the cities, rural farmers assure that they don't get taken by unscrupulous middlemen who offer them below-market rates. A UN report indicates that these information-savvy farmers have increased their profits by 10 percent a big deal when you're living on the edge of survival.
Perhaps most importantly, given the debate in society today about the balance of freedom and security, let's not forget about information and the role of government. If knowledge is power, democratic safeguards that provide us with access to information mean that the government never gets too much power. Free access to government records-both what the Department of Homeland Security is doing as well as what you are doing-was designed to prevent the development of a secret police or an authoritarian state.
The Bottom Line
Nobody can escape the system. Integrity of and access to information is everybody's business now, every day, whether we like it or not. Just because you don't know how a television works, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy watching it. Just because you don't understand all the gee-whiz technology that runs the Internet or satellites or all the other new stuff, don't think the information they collect and share can't affect you. It's time to wake up and smell that free coffee.
So, if there is a good side and a bad side to information tracking, where do we end up? Is it more dangerous to live in the Information Age, or are we all better off as a result? The answer is "Yes" to both.
It's a little like driving a car. Driving a car is certainly more dangerous than sitting at home, but the benefits of getting swiftly from point A to point B can be great. And while taking commonsense precautions like staying on the right side of the road won't guarantee your safety, they do make it far less likely that you'll be injured. This book shows you where the yellow line in the middle of the road is and gives you tips on how to avoid crossing into oncoming traffic.
This book isn't an exploration of future technology, or even technology that doesn't touch a whole lot of us most of the time. It's not going to suggest that you to move to Montana and live in a bunker. It won't try to indoctrinate you to a political agenda or ask you to change the world. This book is about the basics of everyday protection.
The first topic we will cover is your single biggest vulnerability: identity theft. We will figure out what it is, how it happens and what you can do to prevent it. Then, we'll move on to how information can be used to get you what you want. We'll talk about credit reporting, insurance tracking, and banking and money issues. Next, we'll examine just how big Big Brother has become. After that, we'll talk about lists of every type you can imagine, what they're used for, and how you get off the wrong ones and onto the right ones. We'll talk about the Internet issues you need to be most concerned about: hacking, tracking, and spam. And we'll talk about what you need to know in the information age to protect yourself and your family from prying eyes. We will review monitoring in the workplace, mobile tracking, and surveillance by law enforcement and crooks. Last but certainly not least in terms of its importance, we'll end up exploring information issues of particular concern to kids, such as Internet stalking and school record-keeping.
Although the book has been arranged with a certain flow in mind, there is no reason that chapters need to be read in order. Feel free to move around as your mood requires. Some chapters on the most mature information tracking-credit reporting, for example-are long and occasionally technical. Others on newer topics, like mobile tracking, may fit the bill when you need something a little lighter. And, of course, if you think a particular issue doesn't affects you, skip that chapter entirely and move on. Just be warned: you may find that if you do read each chapter you will learn things you hadn't expected!
Within each chapter you will read about the general issues, take a checkup to understand where you, personally, are vulnerable, and figure out actions that make sense for your situation. Each chapter ends with a list of the resources that you'll need to get started on your new action items.
As you read through the book, you will notice references to a lot of laws and organizations by their acronyms. This is a necessary evil, because the names for most laws are longer than the average English sentence. However, it also means that unless you're a candidate for MENSA, you'll probably find that the acronyms become a jumbled alphabet soup before very long. In order to keep the headaches to a minimum, there is a glossary of key acronyms at the end of the book.
And finally, even though we will be talking about the bread-and-butter issues that all of us need to know about, it's important to understand up front that the world is changing very quickly. The Department of Homeland Security has brought the seriousness of both the need to track information and the implications of doing so home to a lot of us. The dramatic increase in identity theft has caught the attention of corporate America, which foots most of the bill for it. The resulting awareness in our society has prompted lawmakers to consider more and more protective legislation and companies to rethink tracking systems with a new sensitivity to privacy issues. Given that so many are working so hard, new developments in information protection are inevitable. Every effort has been made to present you with the most up-to-date information in this book, but for those times where changes have gotten ahead of print, you can follow the latest developments at this book's companion Web site, www.identitytheftprotectionguide.com.
Okay, are you ready? Let's get started.
Copyright 2004 by Amanda Welsh, PhD