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Privacy Diagnosed with a Terminal Illness
Jeff Pasternack

The effort to fill this month's space was made easier by the fact that major media outlets are providing more frequent and in-depth coverage about identity theft than ever before. A few months ago I wrote a three-piece series on a form of identity theft called "account takeover" and many people have asked me for more suggestions on how to avoid becoming a victim. My answer to them---and to you---remains the same from the beginning: educate yourself about your credit rating and keep a vigilant eye on it. You can become a victim when you fill out a credit application for a car loan, visit your doctor, open a bank account, or sign up for insurance.

The common denominator in most cases of identity theft is your Social Security Number and I can't help but think that there are just too many companies that request/require it for their own business purposes (i.e., skip-tracing deadbeats who bail on their financial obligations). Do I trust the corporate entity known as Mercedes Benz? Sure, why not, it seems that they make a great car for rich people, so paupers like me can trust them based on their image. Do I even think for a minute that I am also placing my trust in the paper jockeys who obtain and process the financing documents? No. My…our…trust is institutional, not individual.

Check out this sweeping generalization. Not too long ago credit was granted on an individual and local basis: your neighborhood store gave you credit because you lived in town and they knew your family. Time passed, bigger businesses with fewer community ties emerged, and credit on a personal basis largely disappeared. Bigger entities wanted a way to track people to whom they gave credit. What better way than the government's method, i.e., Social Security Numbers? So it became ubiquitous: give us the number and we'll give you credit.

Now we've outgrown this system; or, rather, the vulnerabilities of this system are too well known and simply too massive to be patched. The gaping hole is in a key assumption about the Social Security Number, which is this: if you can give the number, you have a right to do so. This assumption is false. Speaking this number to a banker or writing it on a credit application does not prove that you are who the US Government believes that you are, i.e. the person who was lawfully assigned the number.

Identity thieves take advantage of this assumption by using other people's Social Security Numbers all the time. So the conceptual question that must be answered is: how do we build a system that incontrovertibly guarantees that a person is who they claim to be? Alternatively, how do we build a new identity-assurance layer onto our existing system which proves that a person giving out a Social Security Number is the person who has rightfully been assigned that number? The answer, which is slowly being implemented, is that your Social Security Number will be tied to something far more difficult to fake: DNA or, at a minimum, other biometric information such as your fingerprints.

"That'll be $72, Mr. Pasternack. Oh, you want to use your MasterCard? That's fine, sir. Please insert a saliva sample into the Identity Verification Receptacle. Whoops…you missed, sir…I'll just wipe that off my hand and you can try again."

All jokes aside, most of you reading this are businesspeople. Don't you want to know that the person to whom you are providing products and services is, in fact, the person you believe they are, and that their credit is legitimate and good? That you'll be paid? We all certainly try to accumulate as much money as we can and collecting cash is easy; it's the credit part that makes it so complex.

So here's a master plan to fear as biometric technology becomes cheaper and more reliable: A coalition between government and big business is formed to aggregate biometric information and distribute authentication units. Citizens who sign up for the program will receive incentives (just as EZPass and SunPass charge you less at some tolls) for joining the program. It starts with financial institutions and large retail operations. No more credit cards; just place your palm on the box. Biometric data networks will be formed, just as the ATM industry has First Data Company or Concord EFS. Smaller businesses begin to buy the verification units and, soon enough, it becomes far easier to use your palm than it does to carry a card. Besides, you save an extra 10 percent off the already-low prices.

The reality of 9/11 has shown that Americans are willing to sacrifice privacy for the illusion of security. The Glorious Age of the Internet has shown that we're willing to sacrifice our privacy for the sake of convenience. Biometric technology will bring about the convergence of the security illusion and the convenience factor into one happy alliance---and only at the mere cost of privacy, something our citizens have been all too happy to give away. George Orwell probably had half the equation right: there will be a Big Brother, but it won't be the government. It will be big business.

Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group and author of the TechnoPeasant Review. If you have questions about technology or comments about this column, please write to him at


Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at