Sunday, August 20, 2006

Identity theft and warrantless wiretapping

Many supporters of warrantless wiretapping, or other means of mass data gathering by the government, say "If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about."

1) Ever hear of Identity Theft? ID thieves can steal more than your economic data. Data is gathered on you by a company called Choice Point, that claims: "ChoicePoint is the leading provider of identification and credential verification services for business and government." They have information on medical records, legal filings you've made, arrest records you may have. Or someone else has done in your name. Do you know if your records show if you've done anything illegal? Do an Internet search on "Criminal Identity Theft" and be prepared to be horrified. And your credit report will record anyone who's ever used your address. Some guy applied for a job at the local junior college and used my home address. His name now shows up on my credit report as someone who lives at my address. And in some background check somewhere, that can be interpreted as "he lives here." If he gets arrested for something, am I now considered an accessory?

2) Ever hear of Data Entry Error? Anyone who types knows even the best typist makes errors. Anybody who's ever had to deal with massive amounts of data is aware of typographic errors. I heard that a typo in a Nebraska law (I think it was Nebraska) that misplaced a semicolon, made slavery legal in that state until the state legislature could pass a correction. I check my credit reports every year. Every couple of years, someone else's credit data ends up on my report. Since I can't see the underlying data, I assume a transposed set of numbers somewhere. And the above mentioned Criminal Identity Theft can also be caused by "typoed identification numbers into criminal database."

I don't have (much of) a problem with data gathering. It does help track criminal activities. But I'd like to know that someone is guarding the guardians. "Checks and Balances" isn't just a pretty phrase. Sometimes knowing someone is looking over your shoulder is a bloody pain in the ass: Some second-guesser or Monday-morning quarterback is going to nitpick my work. But on the other hand, knowing someone is looking over your shoulder keeps you from taking that first (or second) step down the path to criminality.

So, have you done anything wrong? Or has someone done something wrong in your name and you won't know until the government shows up on your doorstep and takes you away?