Identity heft and Invasion of Privacy

Cybercrime affects both a virtual and a real body, but the effects upon each are different. This phenomenon is clearest in the case of identity theft. In the United States, for example, individuals do not have an official identity card but a Social Security number that has long served as a de facto identification number. Taxes are collected on the basis of each citizen's Social Security number, and many private institutions use the number to keep track of their employees, students, and patients. Access to an individual's Social Security number affords the opportunity to gather all the documents related to that person's citizenship—i.e., to steal his identity. Even stolen credit card information can be used to reconstruct an individual's identity. When criminals steal a firm's credit card records, they produce two distinct effects.

First, they make off with digital information about individuals that is useful in many ways. For example, they might use the credit card information to run up huge bills, forcing the credit card firms to suffer large losses, or they might sell the information to others who can use it in a similar fashion. Second, they might use individual credit card names and numbers to create new identities for other criminals. For example, a criminal might contact the issuing bank of a stolen credit card and change the mailing address on the account. Next, the criminal may get a passport or driver's license with his own picture but with the victim's name. With a driver's license, the criminal can easily acquire a new Social Security card; it is then possible to open bank accounts and receive loans—all with the victim's credit record and background. The original cardholder might remain unaware of this until the debt is so great that the bank contacts the account holder. Only then does the identity theft become visible. Although identity theft takes places in many countries, researchers and law-enforcement officials are plagued by a lack of information and statistics about the crime worldwide. Interpol, the international policing agency, has not added any type of cybercrime, including identity theft, to its annual crime statistics. Cybercrime is clearly, however, an international problem.

In 2003 the U.S. Federal Trade Commission released the first national survey on identity theft; according to the report, in the previous year 3.3 million Americans had their identities fraudulently used to open bank, credit card, or utility accounts, with losses of $32.9 billion to businesses and $3.8 billion to individuals. The report also stated that 6.6 million Americans were victimized by account theft, such as use of stolen credit cards and automatic teller machine (ATM) cards, with losses of $14 billion to businesses and $1.1 billion to individuals.


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