Biometrics and Trusted Identity

Combating Identity Theft

Incidents of identity theft have grown exponentially over the past few years and have recently become a mainstay of US media attention. Each week breaking headlines reveal new and seemingly more complex and frightening schemes to appropriate and exploit the identities of unsuspecting individuals. From credit reports, to healthcare records, from insurance files to details of financial transactions, our identities are widely scattered in both digital and paper files. As our reliance on interconnected networks has grown with the rapid mainstreaming of the Internet, the problem of identity theft has been exacerbated. The stakes are higher than ever and the game more compelling for perpetrators of fraud.

Instead of grabbing a gun and heading down to the corner convenience store, would be thieves sit in the comfort of their homes and surf their way to mayhem. With a few key bits of information -- a social security number, billing addressee, mother’s maiden name-- identity thieves easily appropriate identities and instantly open credit card accounts, make purchases and apply for loans. And unlike other crimes, the victims typically do not know they have been victimized for more than 12 months.

Statistics on the actual number of incidents and associated costs vary. There were at least 380,000 and perhaps as many as one million incidents of identity theft in the US in 2002 where monetary loss estimates range from $2.5 to $8 billion. These are direct monetary losses only and do not reflect the added costs of managing the fall-out to consumers and businesses, let alone the associated law enforcement costs. The Initial focus on combating identity theft has been on addressing consumer complaints, however, broader economic implications and national security concerns are far more insidious and the consequences potentially dire. Consider 9/11 the highest level of disaster possible when identity theft goes unchecked. Hijackers easily obtained the base form of ID in the US; driver's licenses.

Why should biometrics vendors care? Successful biometrics market development requires identifying and solving high point-of-pain problems. In this regard, identity theft is a ringer. This is a point of pain that directly ties consumer fear and healthy, sustainable economic development to homeland secuirty.

The problem of identify theft is enormous and biometric identification in and of itself cannot prevent the theft or fraudulent used of thieved identities. However, it is highly unlikely that individuals will want to leave biometrics markers behind as they engage in criminal activity. Biometrics identification along with strong legislative and regulatory rules requiring protection of the issuance and use of breeder identifiers and documents (government benefits numbers and IDs, passports, driver's licenses, birth certificates, etc. ) can certainly curtail what has become an epidemic like spread of identity related crimes.

As with all biometrics opportunities, focus on providing solutions for specific aspects of the identity theft problem within closely aligned target markets will be the key to success.

C. Maxine Most, 2003