Belmont Club

Synthetic man

Susan Crane’s book on Ritual, Identity and Clothing During the 100 Years War has a chapter on “Talking Garments”. In those days who people were was signified by what they wore. The inner was represented by the outer. The clothes made the man.

Today, we are beyond such sartorial nonsense. Who we are is represented by electronic entries on databases, card-sized pieces of plastic and of course, biometrics. Which makes the Strategy Page’s article “Fake Fingerprints for Sale” interesting.

January 11, 2009: Japan has admitted that its new biometric immigration control system has been breached. The first known incident occurred eight months ago, when a South Korean women, who had been deported in 2007 for overstaying her visa, slipped back in. She has been barred from returning for five years. She successfully got past the fingerprint system by purchasing a forged passport in South Korea, and getting with it a clear tape to put over her finger. The tape contained a fingerprint of someone who was not in the Japanese database. The tape worked, just as it has been shown working on TV shows and movies for years. The woman was later picked up inside Japan, and police figured out how she had evaded the emigration controls.

Chris Hoofnagle, writing in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology in 2007 asserted that while most everyone agreed that identity theft was on the rise nobody quite knew how extensive it was.

There is widespread agreement that identity theft causes financial damage to consumers, creditors, retail establishments, and the economy as a whole. The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has identified it as the fastest growing white collar crime; federal and state governments have enacted numerous laws to curb its incidence and

The contours of the identity theft problem, however, are known unknowns: no one knows the prevalence of identity theft, the relative rates of “new account fraud” and “account takeover,” or the effect this crime has on the economy.

In the modern world nearly all great crimes are information crimes. Nearly everything of consequence in this world — authority, wealth, even identity — has been put in one to one correspondence with pieces of information. You don’t need the physical thing in itself; just the handle, just the token. Bernard Madoff, in pulling off the single greatest reported financial crime in history, didn’t cart single physical object from Point A to Point B. He just manipulated information. Hamas should have our sympathy because the newspapers say so. Global Warming is inevitable because everyone knows it is. Information is almost reality.

The sheer power of information is illustrated by the crime called synthetic identity theft, a curious term because the identities in question is stolen from no one. They are manufactured out of whole cloth. Computers and networks have given deceiving people a cheap way of playing God. New people, insofar as information systems are concerned, can be brought into this world. They may be men who never were, but they buy things, sell stuff, write letters, even offer marriage or promise to deposit vast sums in your bank acccount and often no one is the wiser.

A variation of identity theft which has recently become more common is synthetic identity theft, in which identities are completely or partially fabricated. The most common technique is combining a real social security number with a name and birthdate other than the ones associated with the number. Synthetic identity theft is more difficult to track, as it doesn’t show on either person’s credit report directly, but may appear as an entirely new file in the credit bureau or as a subfile on one of the victim’s credit reports. Synthetic identity theft primarily harms the creditors that unwittingly grant the fraudsters credit. Consumers can be affected if their names become confused with the synthetic identities, or if negative information in their subfiles impacts their credit.

In an impersonal, mobile and multicultural society, a person who loses the entire documentation of his life without the wherewithal to reconstruct it can be in trouble: imagine a natural born American recluse with mental problems: who is he? Anyone who’s lost a wallet full of credit cards and ID knows how hard it is to be temporarily without the tokens of who you are. Identity has become so important that companies have sprung up to manage your online reputation. For a modest fee they offer to expunge all derogatory references to you on the Internet. Are you skeptical? Don’t be. These online reputational management companies have impeccable online reputations. My first thoughts on reading Hoofnagle’s proposal to gather more information on information fraud was “that’s a good idea. Surely we can trust that study.”

But who are we really? All we know about about most people is what they betoken. Anyone want to buy a slightly used set of fingerprints?