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Mitigating identity theft

Security expert Bruce Schneier says solutions being proposed in Congress won't stem a worrying trend.

    Identity theft is the new crime of the information age.

    A criminal collects enough personal data on someone to impersonate a victim to banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions. Then he racks up debt in the person'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 clear his name.

    Unfortunately, the solutions being proposed in Congress 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; identity information is being misused to commit fraud.

    The real crime here is fraud; more specifically, impersonation leading to fraud.

    The 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's been in the news recently: ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, Bank of America, and so on.

    But data privacy is 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 doesn't take much to submit fraudulent bank transactions in someone else's name. 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 intuitions. That means that any solution can't involve the account holders. That leaves only one reasonable answer: Financial intuitions need to be liable for fraudulent transactions.

    They need to be liable for sending erroneous information to credit bureaus based on fraudulent transactions. They can't say that the user must keep his password secure or his machine virus-free. They can't 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 made responsible, regardless of what the user does.

    If you think this won't work, look at credit cards. Credit card companies are 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. And they've pushed most of the actual costs onto the merchants.

    Identity theft solutions focus much too much on authenticating the person.

    And almost none of their security centers on trying to authenticate the cardholder.

    That's an important lesson. Identity theft solutions focus 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 person isn't 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'll 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 out a bunch of information on a form.

    The likely solution will be a combination of solutions that reduce fraudulent transactions to a manageable level, but we'll never know until the financial institutions have the financial incentives 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 can do all sorts of things, 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 third-party data and violations of privacy. I believe that the United States would be well-served by a comprehensive Data Protection Act, like the European Union has. 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 that is in the best position to mitigate the risk to be responsible for that risk. And that means making the financial institutions liable for fraudulent transactions.

    Doing anything less simply won't work.