Friday, September 10, 2010

Questions of Identity

We've seen a great increase in identity crime lately, and, as a result, we have heard people cry out for a Universal National ID.  There is hope that, once we can definitively identify an individual, we can then ensure that only the individual will be able to act on his own behalf (excepting power of attorney, among other things).

In thinking about this, however, I wonder:  is it really a lack of ID that's causing these problems?  Or is it the increase of anonymity?  And does government-issued ID re-inforce this increase of anonymity?

Consider a major source of identity theft:  the obtaining of credit cards in someone else's name.  This is largely made possible by the fact that credit card companies will send out pre-approved offers, and then finish the approval of those cards, without so much as a check of the person's credit score.  (Who in their right mind ever thought it would be responsible to offer credit to the family pet (in some cases, literally)?  Perhaps the best way to address this problem would be to convince everyone that offers of credit should only be made in person.)

Or another:  the use of a Social Security Number, obtained who-knows-where, to pay taxes, or open bank accounts, or who knows what else.  This is made possible by relying on an arbitrary series of digits as the identity of a given person.  While efforts can be made to match the number with a name, certain factors--such as other forged identification--can be used to interfere even with this.

Now, consider this:  Why does a bank, or a landlord, or a family, or a judge, or a restaurant, need to know who I am?  Let's ignore the restaurant:  the only concern is age, and even that's not a concern when alcohol isn't involved!  But for the remainder, identities only matter because the individuals involved want to make sure that certain things--an account, a (possibly trashed) apartment, an inheritance, or a punishment--are applied to the right person.

If we limit our identities to "the person who opened this account", for example, then a bank really only needs to know a handful of things:  a name (it doesn't even have to be a real one), a signature, a picture, perhaps a thumb-print, and an address of some sort to send bank statements and warnings.  If "the person who opened this account" needs to pull money out of his account, then the bank can issue some sort of ID (a bank-card, possibly with a picture and a thumb-print) to make sure that the person is authorized to take money from the account.

Now, judging is a trickier matter:  but again, the goal is to identify that a given person committed a crime.  It doesn't matter who that person claims to be, so long as that person is clearly identified with that given crime.

What about Social Security Numbers?  Obstencibly, the original purpose for this "ID" is to collect taxes, and to dole out welfare.  Theoretically, I should be able to work under a number of names, though, and pay taxes under each name...and receive payments according to what I paid in.  So long as I don't perpetrate fraud (claim I'm disabled, for example, when I'm not, or claim that I'm 65 when I'm really 40), this also shouldn't be a problem!  (It furthermore wouldn't be a problem if government would just stay out of the retirement and disability insurance field altogether...but that's probably for another post.)

This is where we get to the heart of the matter, though:  while obstencibly, our SSNs were intended to be only a Tax ID number, our government encouraged it to be much more than that:  our government has encouraged us to use it as an ID number for all other words, it was meant to be a precursor to a National ID.  It is only recently, it seems--due to the explosion of Identity Theft--that our government has encouraged us to be more conservative with using our SSN as an ID.

Somehow, and I'm not sure how, just yet (this is, after all, a new line of thought for me), by relying on our SSN, and our governments in general, to establish our identifications, it has simultaniously destroyed, yet enhanced, our anonymity.  It is destroyed, because it's difficult to walk into a bank, call myself "George Smith", and open a new account, one that could be used in emergencies (both moral and immoral--anonymity is a double-edged sword) where anonymity is required.  Yet it is enhanced, because all we need to do to establish ourselves as someone else is to obtain a valid Social Security Number, and maybe furbish a forged ID card or two...or, in the case of our pets, perhaps to send for a free ice cream coupon in our dog's name.

This line of thinking definitely deserves more exploration....

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