Social Problems

What Counts as Identity Theft?

Many of the arguments in favor of net neutrality rely heavily on the idea that the internet is, as President Barack Obama said, “one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.” While that statement might be true in some ways, it’s not the whole truth. Initially built for military intelligence purposes, the same infrastructure that provides unprecedented access to information also provides a platform for surveillance and identity theft on an unprecedented scale. Whether enacted by governments, corporations, or individuals, the volume of surveillance and identity theft possible in digital environments is increasing the risk to individuals while also increasing the futility victims feel in trying to protect themselves or find recourse through the criminal justice system.

In describing her own experience with an online impersonator, Katie Baker minimizes the fake Instagram account created using her name and likeness as “extremely benign” while also noting her “constant unease” in her ignorance of the account’s true purpose. Why would an impersonator take the time to surveil her online habits, use them to construct a realistic social media profile, track down friends and community members who would want to connect with her, and send them direct messages, only to stop pursuing contact shortly thereafter? Baker’s feeling of dread, and knowledge of how social media companies handle reporting of fake accounts, was strong enough that she and her friends collectively (and successfully) appealed to Instagram to have the user banned, and she admits feeling relief at this outcome; even so, Baker immediately second-guesses whether it was necessary, then expresses certainty that some future ne’er-do-well will someday perfect their impersonation of her.

This mixture of action despite her fatalism and the perceived futility of using Instagram’s reporting system echoes Zoe Quinn’s experience in protecting herself against a former boyfriend who used his social networks to unleash a vicious backlash against her after their breakup. Eron Gjoni’s web-based “hate mob,” as Quinn described it, was so coordinated and violent in following her moves and publicly reporting her virtual and physical activity that she fled her home, in fear for her life. Quinn received multiple restraining orders against Gjoni, but by the time Boston’s District Attorney got involved, the scale of the abuse and harassment had reached such a level that Quinn decided to drop her case, forgoing legal action in favor of lobbying the technology companies whose services were used in Gjoni’s harassment campaign into taking steps to counter the kind of abuse she received.

While Baker’s experience might be casually referred to as identity theft, neither her situation nor Quinn’s currently fall under a legal definition of that concept, a term inconsistently defined even among scholars, legal experts, and law enforcement agencies. Using a person’s name and Social Security number to open a new credit card account is consistently considered identity theft, for example, but using that same person’s existing credit card to make fraudulent purchases is typically not. Having inconsistent and overly-restrictive legal definitions that do not and cannot adjust at the speed of technological advance helps ensure that our criminal justice system “remains unwilling, or unable, to resolve all but the most straightforward” of web-based crimes. This is not an inevitability, however. Ari Adut, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees with Craig Calhoun that identities “are often formed in the course of public debates” (p. 239) and further argues that the public sphere consists of “all virtual or real spaces […] that can be sensorily accessed with or without mediation” (p. 243). These conceptualizations could provide the foundation for an argument that exclusion from the public sphere constitutes identity theft. Because Quinn could not safely access the public sphere, either physically or virtually, without fearing for her life, her right to engage in public debates, and therefore to construct her own identity, was stolen.

The definition of identity crime could also be expanded to include not just horizontal surveillance and identity theft, but vertical forms of those crimes as well. In Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life, Mary Chayko uses these terms to describe and make visible the relative power of the enacter versus the object of surveillance, and the transparency or opacity of that relationship. Horizontal surveillance occurs when surveillor and surveillee are in a relatively equal and transparent relationship, such as the individual-to-individual surveillance both Baker and Quinn faced on social media sites, where the point of being present is (to some extent) to be seen. Vertical surveillance, meanwhile, is enacted by governments or corporations on individuals who may have no expectation of being tracked, no ability to know they are being tracked, and no way to opt out.

Because of their power to issue official identity documents, governments have access to particular forms of identity theft not available to individuals or even corporations. Simone Browne, in describing the concept of “digital epidermalization,” outlines the process by which our bodies are algorithmically broken into component biometric parts — “iris and retinal scans, hand geometry, fingerprint data, facial and vascular patterns, and gait recognition” (p. 134) — digitized, and then encoded into governmental databases, which then serve as the official record of our identity. These encoded attributes can then be compared with our physical bodies at checkpoints, applied and interpreted by human government employees (customs agents, border guards, TSA agents), and used to judge whether we are included or excluded from physical spaces like national borders, as well as virtual spaces, like when Instagram requires government-issued identification to request the removal of fraudulent account.

Similar to how Zoe Quinn’s right to create and enact her identity was taken away by Gjoni’s internet mobs, a government reducing one’s identity to the sum of their biometric data parts is taking the right of self-determination out of the hands of individuals, effectively stealing their identity. In this way, the internet retains its original military intelligence purposes, to monitor and control the movements of individuals, while also determining who shall be judged worthy to take part in the public sphere. If identity theft were to be defined by process and outcome, instead of restricted to specific contexts, victims would have a greater opportunity to find recourse through the criminal justice system, perhaps leading to less victimization as well as less fatalism. However, this is unlikely to happen, as it could potentially raise the visibility of the vertical surveillance and identity theft inflicted on individuals by corporations (with their powerful and monied lobbyists) and the government. In this way, the impact of digital environments on our feelings of victimization could be considered a canary in a coal mine, alerting us to the even more alarming impact digital environments are having on the scale and scope of our actual victimization.