By Robert Wenzel
There is a lot of media attention lately on hackers and identity theft. Partly because of the recent hack at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. That was information on government employees that was hacked and I am really not concerned about them. But, I want to address the idea of "identity theft" and its true nature.
I believe it is important to understand that what is going on for the most part is not identity theft but theft of government assigned identity documents or government assigned tracking numbers.
Almost everything we do today requires us to show government ID, even to board a plane. It is even worse when we open any type of financial account. We are then required to show government ID and provide our social security number.
Way back in the old days, it was possible to walk into a bank and tell the clerk that you were Harry the Hat and bingo an account was opened for you without any identification demands from the bank. If you had money, a bank was more than willing to take a deposit. That's really what banks are supposed to do. Without ID, you would get an account number and, possibly a passbook, and be on your way.
But these days, we are required to show government ID, and provide our social security number, when opening a bank account, opening a stock brokerage account, when going for medical care, when starting a new job.
All these demands to show our ID, and often provide our social security number, are done so that the government can track us. If we didn't have to provide these government issued tracking documents and numbers, it would be much more difficult for the government or anyone else to track us.
But here's the kicker, becasue the government assigns each of us a unique tracking number (chiefly our social security number). if someone else gets a hold of that number, they can wreak all kinds of havoc that would not be possible in a world free of government assigned numbers.
If a hacker gets control of your social security number that's pretty much a passkey to your entire life, especially your financial life.
I want to emphasize this is all becasue of government demands, not only was it possible to open a bank account in the old days without providing government ID, but you could travel on a plane ticket in anyone's name.
Before 9-11, Village Voice, the New York City weekly, had a thriving classified ad section, where you could buy airline tickets from individuals who could not, at the last minute, make their planned trips. You could buy these tickets and pass them to the gate flight attendant, and she would let you on the plane, even though you were not the person named on the ticket.
It is important to understand all this show your ID stuff is government mandated. Even the ID you have to show going into clubs. It's all about tracking or control or both.
This is not to say that hacking couldn't occur without government tracking numbers, but the damage would be much more limited. I happened to have used my credit card at Target last year during the time period when they were hacked. My bank just sent me a new card via FedEx, with a new number, and cancelled the old card. It had no ramifications with any of my other accounts. But if on the other hand, an account of mine was hacked and the hacker got my social security number, and started using it, that would have been a nightmare, How does one fix that?
Governments shouldn't be tracking us in the first place. But government assignment of numbers to us all is dangerous because in a world that requires us to show our "papers" and our "numbers," as part of our regular business, it means that our government created identity can be hacked and used with horrific ramifications to us.
And, so, "identity theft" is really theft of our government assigned tracking numbers, end the assignment and use of these tracking numbers and it goes a very, very long way to eliminating "identity theft."
Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of EconomicPolicyJournal.com and Target Liberty. He is author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics