Identity is funny stuff. On the one hand we are all supposed to be able to prove our identity with passport, driver’s license, identity card, iris scan, fingerprint. There seems to be no end to the instruments and technology employed to provide proof of our identity. Just as there seems to be no end to the information stuffed into our identity: who we are, how old we are, how much we earn, where we live, what we buy, where we go on holiday, which bank we use, which insurance we have and so on. You are what you eat. You are what you love. You are what you wear. You are what you drive. Frank Zappa turned it around and said: You are what you is (I like that one). The more information is built into our identity, the more digital damage can be done when our identity is stolen.
Identity theft is nothing new, people have been stealing identities forever. In the Middle Ages someone could forge a letter from the king and with it present himself to a foreign court and enjoy the pleasures of the high life for a certain period of time. After all, he was the representative of a king, people had to treat him with respect until they found out he was a fraud. The man was well advised to be long gone before that happened. Punishment in those days was somewhat harsher than it is today.
Later we started stealing and forging passports and drivers licenses. Change the photograph, practice the signature and we are someone else. That trade has been flourishing for centuries. Since 1995 almost 500,000 brand new, unused passports, drivers licenses and other identity cards were stolen from government buildings in the Schengen area. That sounds like something, doesn’t it?
It isn’t. Around twenty years ago, digital identity theft surfaced. And with the growth of the internet, digital identity theft has exploded. It is the fastest growing crime sector in the world. In the United States alone every 2 seconds someone’s identity is being falsely used. That means 30 people every minute, 1800 people every hour and in our 24/7 economy that means more than 40,000 people every day. We have all read newspaper items about how some hospital ‘lost’ 10,000 patient files, or how the internal revenue service ‘lost’ a few million citizen files. Just like that.
Identity isn’t what it used to be. We used to think that every human being was unique. Now we know we are all more or less the same. Especially in the digital world. Identity is a semi-unique set of data that can be copied at will. Identities can be cloned as often as you want, they have become a virtual thing. Your identity isn’t even really your property, not even your intellectual property, and therefore it is very hard to protect. But if large corporations can protect their logo’s and corporate identity, then why can’t we?
Because it is all our own fault. We wanted to be on the internet, we want all this on line rubbish, social-groups-facebook-youtube-nonsense. What do we expect? If we don’t protect our own identity, our own privacy, we can’t expect someone else to do it for us. And then again, it’s digital, it doesn’t really exist. In the digital world we take what we want when we want it.
The problem is not so much privacy or the lack of privacy, the problem is theft. The internet has done something with us that nobody could have predicted: we have become thieves. Stealing has become normal. Virtual information, personal or not, of whatever kind, is available and free and it is there for the taking. More than 90% of all downloaded music is downloaded without being paid for. Just like that. Think about it: 90%. That means us. And get this: of the remaining 10% that does pay, half pays with a stolen identity.
Who are we kidding?
And yet another part of the problem is that 90% of the population doesn’t really think misuse of digital information is a crime. When streaming services want to charge minimal fees for their service, we cry out in protest: It should be free! Gratis!
It is amazing to see that people who would never think of stealing something in the real world, do so without any qualms whatsoever on the internet. Worse, if you don’t steal, you are considered a loser.
Today, information technology is at the heart of our society, the availability of digital information has become something we depend on, and at every step of its development it is challenging our privacy and the means we have to protect our identity. The technology is powerful, and it is leading in what we do and what we expect and in certain ways that technology goes against us. The more we want from it, the more we expect it to deliver, the more complex it becomes. In the end large corporations, intelligence agencies and organizations with phenomenal budgets can use and misuse the full power of our online life. And hackers, of course, which is why I would urge everyone to become best friends forever with a hacker. He – or she – may be the only person who can save our digital ass once it has gone viral.
Charles Den Tex is the author of ‘Mr Miller’ – the ultimate internet conspiracy. Published by World Editions, the book is available now through Turnaround.