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Arun Marballi

Identity theft has been lately getting a lot of attention and it was perhaps just a little over a month ago that the task force on identity theft commissioned by the Bush Administration submitted its Strategic Plan for combating this scourge; and provided the Department of Justice with a blue print for drafting effective legislation to deal with this problem. Although identity theft goes beyond the subject of computer security and cyber-crime, it has gained such importance that it needs to be addressed with a view to identifying ways to protect our identities.

One of the first things to do is to regularly monitor our credit report. This requires diligence and follow-through. Our federal government has made it possible for us to get one credit report free of charge once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies – Trans Union, Equifax and Experian. Now, if you do a Web search, you will find numerous Web sites that promise you a “free” credit report, but watch out for the fine print; almost all of them are there for one purpose only, to extract money from you by roping you into some paid-for service. The government has set up a Web site,, for your use for this purpose and this is the only Web site that is truly free.

However, as this Web site is operated by Experian – one of the three credit reporting agencies – there are many undisguised attempts throughout the Web page that attempt to lure you off to some “paid-for” service. Anyway, your strategy should be to cycle through the three agency credit reports once a year by pulling one agency’s report every four months. While you are at the Web site, consider pulling your Fico Score (a credit score number that ranges from 300 through 850 generated by using a formula owned by the Fair Isaac Corp. that factors in all your credit information) Report as well.

At the Web site, this credit score report from an agency will cost you under $10 and it is a good idea to cycle through each credit agency’s score for you at the same time as pulling your annual report. One note of caution though. Requesting the free credit report automatically opens you up for “pre-screened” offers for credit. You may want to opt out of these by calling 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688).

Another matter that is closely related to identity theft is the notion of privacy. This has been a subject of much debate recently in the post-911 era. Privacy is one of those hard to get your arms around kind of concepts. How strong is our privacy – really? One would think that if we protect our directly identifiable items of information such as name, Social Security number, driver license number, passport number, fingerprints, retinal scans or DNA pattern; our privacy would be well protected. However, an article in the CIO Magazine recently caught my eye and proved to me that even if we protect these items of information, it is fairly easy to identify us by combining other non-specific items of information related to us.

For instance, just a combination of our gender and the five-digit U.S. ZIP Code for our address would on an average eliminate all but about 35,000 people. In most Zip codes, a date of birth would further narrow it down to around 1 in 95. That is just three non-specific items of information that we consider fairly innocuous! Add to this any other contextual item of information such as the type of car you own, the restaurants you like to eat at, and you will be surprised to know that you could be singled out quite easily as though you had provided your name and Social Security number. Now consider this, GPS-enabled cell phones, Wi-Fi access points and black-box recorders in the cars we drive – do you get the feeling that there isn’t much privacy any more? Does this not add a lot more weight to the ongoing privacy debate?

To exacerbate the privacy problem, we now have claims of technologies such as Iris Recognition from Oki Electric for cell phones and PDAs using Windows mobile and facial recognition software from a company known as Sensible Vision. Marketed as security enhancers for the platforms that they were built for, they in fact could create a personally identifiable trail of information, further reducing our privacy.

Actually, I truly believe that privacy in today’s world is quite non-existent. We leave too much information relating to us lying around everywhere and there is not much we can do about it short of living a life of a hermit. The question that arises is who owns the information that we leave around and how can they use this information without impinging upon our rights. By the way, the constitutional protections when it comes to privacy only shield us from government intrusions. American businesses, with a few exceptions relating to credit reporting and health records, are subject to almost no restrictions regarding privacy.

Arun Marballi has worked in the Information Technology arena for more than 20 years with extensive experience in software development, process design and network/workstation management. For comments, questions, tips or suggestions, e-mail


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