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The Question of Me

This could be me, writing this column but then again, it could be someone else and I, that’s if it’s really me at all, could be a victim of identity theft; although why anyone in their right minds might want to be me is another question altogether.

We were once preoccupied by the threat of being mugged for our mobile phones but now we worry over the risk of identity theft. In the United States alone, people are reporting the theft of their ‘identities’ to the FBI at a rate of one thousand calls a week and Britain is never far behind the example of America.

On this side of the pond, identity, digital or otherwise, remains a thorny issue. As a nation, we are culturally averse to carrying any formal means of identification, partly because as a society, one survey reveals, we trust our Government rather less than our European neighbours do.

In the decidedly low-tech world of paper, we have relied very much on National Insurance numbers as one of the most reliable means of proving an identity, to Government. But there’s a problem, There are at least a third more NI numbers in existence than there are people in the workforce and the same suspicion, I’m told, surrounds driving licenses, passports and just about every other kind of identity that springs to mind. This may explain why Saddam Hussein, is believed by some to be alive and well and claiming benefit in London.

More of us are relying on simple digital identities for on-line banking and other sensitive transactions but research shows that very few of us are taking sensible precautions to protect the details that authorise such transactions. Take PDAs’ as an example. Many thousands of us now use Personal Digital Assistants, iPaQ’s, Palm Pilots and many more of these increasingly powerful ‘Pocket PCs’ but a surprising number of us use absolutely no security on the devices themselves. Many of us store a huge amount of personal information in our Outlook contact list. This can include, Bank details and passwords and this information is replicated to devices which, when stolen or lost, provide the thief with much of the information required to take over another person’s identity or even crack a corporate network.

Stealing another person’s identity is not a particularly sophisticated crime. It can start with credit card ‘swiping’ in a restaurant or it can involve a stolen laptop or PDA and some simple ‘off the shelf’ password cracking software from the Web. It’s not clear how much of a problem identity theft is becoming in the UK but it’s a risk that each and every one of us should guard against through taking simple precautions, which can amount to firewalling our PCs and password protecting our PDAs

As time goes by, digital identities are bound to become a widespread form of ‘currency’ and it’s the instant power of digital credentials that are bound to cause concern without the widespread existence and protection of a foolproof system that can guarantee the ‘true’ identity of the person behind the transaction. We’re still a long way from achieving this and until we do, the very real threat of digital identity theft is something we should all take seriously.


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