Government and Identity Theft

December 19, 2007 – As usual, the government’s efforts to “help” us are actually going to harm us. Concentrating personal information within ID cards or national databases simply makes life that much easier for identity thieves.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

It’s amazing that with identity theft rampant these days, governments and corporations are bending over backward to collect ever more information from us that might be of use to identity thieves!

For the second time in two years a hotel has photocopied my driver’s license. The clerk at the hotel was so accomplished that they managed to photocopy it in the blink of an eye, before I could even object. For the second time in two years I requested that the copy be returned to me, and once again the clerk murmured something incoherent about it being a “state law” to photocopy licenses.

Get this, in Minnesota, where my license was first copied, the clerk there told me it was a “state law” intended to help prevent identity theft! How making millions of photocopies of vital identity documents helps prevent identity theft is beyond me. In Arkansas, where I am now, the clerk told me it was a “state law” to photocopy licenses of guests paying for their rooms with cash! Increasingly, I find that paying for things with cash is viewed with suspicion, as if cash impedes the smooth operation of the total surveillance state. Or maybe it’s discouraged because it deprives credit card issuing corporations of revenue.

When I asked the clerks what eventually happens to these photocopies, they could not say. Nor could they adequately assure me that the copies are stored securely until such time as they are disposed of. Considering the number of guests that stay in any given hotel, it’s impossible for the hotel to store these copies forever. Their file cabinets would quickly be overflowing with copies of driver’s licenses. So at some point they have to dispose of these copies. Considering the pressure on lowly employees to “produce,” my guess is that when it comes time to dispose of these vital documents, they are simply tossed in the trash, creating a veritable treasure trove of information for an identity thief. Look at your present driver’s license. Look at all the information that it contains. Now look at a credit card application. It’s a simple fill-in-the-blank process to transfer the information from one to the other. All that’s lacking is a social security number, and that can be purchased online once you have the rest of someone’s identity information.

Real ID

This invasion of privacy could get a whole lot worse. The federal government is trying to impose a new driver’s license standard on the states, known as the Real ID act. This would require driver’s licenses to become virtual encyclopedias of peoples’ lives. Instead of name, address, and date of birth, which is bad enough, Real ID-compliant licenses will contain dozens of pieces of information, including a digital photograph of the individual. Let’s not make identity theft too difficult now!

RFID Passports

But wait, it gets even worse, for the federal government is planning to put much the same information as Real ID on our passports as well and equip these passports with RFID chips so that the information can be scanned from some distance! So when you carry such a passport, you will be airing all your personal information in public to anyone possessing a scanner that can read these RFID chips. You’ll be walking around with a device that is, in a sense, broadcasting all your personal information, begging someone to steal your identity. For those who don’t know it, the “RF” in “RFID” stands for “radio frequency.” It is a system that effectively turns a passive chip into a radio upon demand. It doesn’t require a power source, such as a battery, because the power is supplied by the radio signal sent to the chip by the scanner. Thus, someone can walk past you with a scanner, the scanner sends out a radio signal, and the RFID chip embedded in your passport wakes up and transmits its contents to the scanner. In an open area, someone could conceivably scan your passport from a distance of tens of feet. The distance is limited only by the strength of the radio signal sent to the RFID chip, the sensitivity of the receiver of the transmitted information, and sources of signal interference.

Information Security

Of course, having all this information on a license or a passport isn’t much use unless it’s also stored in a database somewhere, so that the license or passport can be verified as authentic. “Stored where?”, you ask. Who knows. But one thing is for sure, millions of such detailed identity records will be consolidated in one convenient location. Should a hacker break into such a database (happens all the time) or should such databases be stored on a laptop or removable hard disk or CD that ends up getting stolen (happens all the time), the recipients of the databases will have their hands on a gold mine of identity information. Or on an individual level, if you lose your futuristic driver’s license or passport, you will not have merely inconvenienced yourself; you will have basically opened your life to anyone with the means to read the information off a license or a passport, which is anyone who wants to. The equipment needed to read a driver’s license or passport is inexpensive and easy to obtain. Actually, for an identity thief, obtaining such equipment is risk free. They simply order it online using a credit card issued to someone whose identity they have already stolen!

When All Is Said And Done, Is Government Really A Benefit To Us?

It seems to be a common problem with all government laws intended to protect us that we law abiding people are harmed by these laws, while life is made easier for criminals. The government demands more information from us, and identity thieves enjoy easier access to our information. The government disarms us, and armed criminals rob us fearlessly.

Notice in the examples cited above, that it’s the government that is responsible for the consolidation of all this personal information into one convenient place. The corporations, which live by no principles, dumbly comply with the government’s edicts, no matter how imprudent or asinine. Yet where is the government when someone becomes a victim of identity theft? Then you’re on your own, buddy. Such victims sometimes have to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars proving their innocence (remember, this is the land of innocent until proven guilty) to governments and corporations. What does the government care if their unreasonable demand for your personal information makes it easier for you to be victimized?

Update – 5 February 2009

As I postulated, those RFID passports are indeed readable from a distance, as this article explains.

The End