Identity theft is the information age’s new crime. A criminal collects enough personal data on the victim to impersonate him to banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions. Then he racks up debt in the victim’s name, collects the cash and disappears. The victim is left holding the bag.
While some of the losses are absorbed by financial institutions–credit card companies in particular–the credit-rating damage is borne by the victim. It can take years for the victim to completely clear his name.
So far, we’ve seen several “solutions” to this problem: forcing companies to disclose when they lose personal information, forcing companies to secure personal information, forcing financial institutions to enhance their authentication procedures. Unfortunately, these won’t help.
To see why, we need to start with the basics. The very term “identity theft” is an oxymoron. Identity is not a possession that can be acquired or lost; it’s not a thing at all. Someone’s identity is the one thing about a person that cannot be stolen.
The real crime here is fraud–more specifically, impersonation leading to fraud. Impersonation is an ancient crime, but the rise of information-based credentials gives it a modern spin.
A criminal impersonates a victim online and steals money from his account. He impersonates a victim in order to deceive financial institutions into granting credit to the criminal in the victim’s name. He impersonates a victim to the post office and gets the victim’s address changed. He impersonates a victim in order to fool the police into arresting the wrong man. No one’s identity is stolen; instead, identity information is being misused to commit fraud.
Such crime involves two very separate issues. The first is the privacy of personal data. Personal privacy is important for many reasons, one of which is impersonation and fraud. As more information about us is collected, correlated and sold, it becomes easier for criminals to get their hands on the data they need to commit fraud.
This is what you read about in the news: personal information stolen from companies, banks, universities, government databases.
But data privacy is about more than just fraud. Whether it is the books we take out of the library, the Web sites we visit or the contents of our text messages, most of us have personal data on third-party computers that we don’t want made public. The posting of Paris Hilton’s phone book on the Internet is a celebrity example of this.
The second issue is the ease with which a criminal can use personal data to commit fraud. It doesn’t take much personal information to apply for a credit card in someone else’s name. It’s not that hard to conduct fraudulent bank transactions in someone else’s name.
And it’s surprisingly easy to get an identification card in someone else’s name. Our current culture, where identity is verified simply and sloppily, makes it easier for a criminal to impersonate his victim.
Proposed fixes tend to concentrate on the first issue–making personal data harder to steal–whereas the real problem is the second. If we’re ever going to manage the risks and effects of electronic impersonation, we must concentrate on preventing and detecting fraudulent transactions.
Fraudulent transactions have nothing to do with the legitimate account holders. Criminals impersonate legitimate users to financial institutions. That means that any solution can’t involve the account holders.
That leaves only one reasonable answer: financial institutions need to be liable for the cost of fraudulent transactions. They need to be liable for sending erroneous information to credit bureaus based on fraudulent transactions.
They should not be able to demand that the user must keep his password secure or his machine virus-free. They should not be able to require the user to monitor his accounts for fraudulent activity, or his credit reports for fraudulently obtained credit cards. Those aren’t reasonable requirements for most users. The bank must be responsible, regardless of what the user does.
If you think this won’t work, look at credit cards. Credit card companies like American Express (nyse: AXP – news – people ) are generally liable for all but the first $50 of fraudulent transactions. They’re not hurting for business; and they’re not drowning in fraud either.
They’ve developed and fielded an array of security technologies designed to detect and prevent fraudulent transactions. They’ve pushed most of the actual costs onto the merchants. And almost no security centers around are trying to authenticate the cardholder.
That’s an important lesson. Identity theft solutions focus much too much on authenticating the person. Whether it’s two-factor authentication–ID cards, biometrics, or whatever–there’s a widespread myth that authenticating the person is the way to prevent these crimes.
But once you understand that the problem is fraudulent transactions, you quickly realize that authenticating the transaction, not the person, is the way to proceed.
Again, think about credit cards. Store clerks barely verify signatures when people use cards. People can use credit cards to buy things by mail, phone or Internet, where no one verifies the signature or even that you have possession of the card.
Even worse, no credit card company mandates secure storage requirements for credit cards. They don’t demand that cardholders secure their wallets in any particular way. Credit card companies simply don’t worry about verifying the cardholder or putting requirements on what he does. They concentrate on verifying the transaction.
This same sort of thinking needs to be applied to other areas where criminals use impersonation to commit fraud. I don’t know what the final solutions will look like, but I do know that once financial institutions are liable for losses due to these types of fraud, they will find solutions.
Maybe there will be a daily withdrawal limit, like there is on ATMs. Maybe large transactions will be delayed for a period of time, or will require a call-back from the bank or brokerage company. Maybe people will no longer be able to open a credit card account by simply filling in a bunch of information on a form.
Likely the solution will be a combination of solutions that reduces fraudulent transactions to a manageable level, but we’ll never know until the financial institutions have the financial incentive to put them in place.
Right now, the economic incentives result in financial institutions that are so eager to allow transactions–new credit cards, cash transfers, whatever–that they’re not paying enough attention to fraudulent transactions. They’ve pushed the costs for fraud onto the merchants.
But if they’re liable for losses and damages to legitimate users, they’ll pay more attention. And they’ll mitigate the risks. Security technologies can work wonders in preventing identity theft, once the economic incentives to apply them are there.
By focusing on the fraudulent use of personal data, I do not mean to minimize the harm caused by other misuse of third-party data and violations of privacy. I believe that the U.S. would be well-served by a comprehensive Data Protection Act such as exists in the European Union. However, I do not believe that a law of this type would significantly reduce the risk of fraudulent impersonation.
To mitigate that risk, we need to concentrate on detecting and preventing fraudulent transactions. We need to make the entity, which is in the best position to mitigate the risk, responsible for that risk. And that means making the financial institutions liable for fraudulent transactions.
Doing anything less simply won’t work.