Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IDENTITY THEFT....It's been a bad month for people who worry about identify theft which ought to be all of us. A quick rundown:

  • ChoicePoint was the big news, of course. 145,000 records were stolen, the public was informed only because California has a law requiring it, and even at that it turns out that ChoicePoint is not even trying to identify records stolen before July 1, 2003, the date the California law took effect. As Bruce Schneier puts it, "ChoicePoint has decided to tape a huge 'Please Regulate My Industry' sign to its back."

  • Bank of America announced that 1.2 million records had been stolen, including the records of, um, some United States congressmen. Suddenly the United States Congress sat up and took notice.

  • LexisNexis announced that 30,000 records had been stolen by identity thieves.

  • On Thursday, shoe retailer DSW announced that "hundreds of thousands" of credit card records had been stolen.

Congress is "concerned," of course, and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) says he plans to introduce legislation to improve the security of consumers' financial data.

Which is fine, although I'd be happier if the legislation were written by someone not associated with the financial industry. After all, we've already gotten a pretty good look at what happens to too many Democrats when the credit card industry starts tossing out a bit of walking around money. And the Republicans well, they do everything but get down on their hind legs and start barking.

What we really need is a revolution. I propose two basic approaches:

  • Stricter regulation of personal information, along the lines of Corzine's legislation but tougher. This would apply to companies that limit their databases to information about their own transactions with their own customers.

  • Individuals should be invested with property rights in any commercial collection of personal data about themselves that's assembled from multiple sources. In a modern society, any such collection really is "your" identity. You should have the right to control it.

    As co-owners of the data, consumers would have the absolute right to be informed that a file on them exists; to review their files free of charge; to contest any information in their files; to be notified whenever their data is requested; to compensation if their data is sold to another broker; and to approve the release of their data.

Needless to say, this would drive up the cost of data brokering considerably. Too bad. It's time for everyone to understand that our identities are as much our property as our cars and our houses, and losing them is considerably more harmful. Talk to anyone who's suffered from identity theft and ask them: would you rather go through that again or would you rather have your car stolen? I bet the car would win hands down.

This is also a case where there ought to an opportunity for bipartisan unity. Conservatives and libertarians are strong believers in property rights, so this is an idea they should warm up to. Liberals are strong believers in privacy rights, so they should be pretty open to this idea as well. Now all we have to do is fight the flood of money that would be opposed. Should be a piece of cake.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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