Chapter 4. Vulnerable Identities
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50 Chapter 4 Vulnerable Identities Contemporary insecurity now extends well beyond individual bodies, national borders, and material infrastructures. It includes, as well, the electronic data required for people to function in societies. Given the enhanced vulnerability of people’s data, identity theft has become a critical concern, as it now represents the largest category of fraud-related complaints in the United States. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), roughly 9 million U.S. adults are victims of identity theft each year.1 These include cases of credit card theft, illegal wire transfers, Internet scams, phone and utilities fraud, and theft of business data. Police agencies have responded to this new crime threat by launching coordinated public education programs to teach consumers to “protect themselves” better. Some police recommendations include buying paper shredders for home use, shielding the keypad when using an ATM, not disclosing any personal information over the phone or the Internet, and setting up network “firewalls” to safeguard electronic data. While self-protection is important within the current climate of enhanced data vulnerability, this victim-centered response neglects the political and economic forces and systemic vulnerabilities that may be contributing to this form of insecurity in the first place. This chapter investigates the ways that identity theft integrates with dominant security cultures and supports their logics. The creation of insecurity subjects who adopt responsibility for certain police and government functions is one theme. This involves the construction of threats against which individuals must protect themselves. The veracity of these threats or the underlying causes of them are typically ignored because consideration of them would likely imply state intervention through social programs and regulation of industry, both of which would be dissonant against today’s dominant neoliberal tones. The political and economic context for identity theft is one of postindustrialization , particularly within regions that have lost their stable industries and have gained a host of social instabilities, such as the manufacture and use of methamphetamines. Another geography where identity theft thrives is in regions of heightened economic polarization and sociospatial segregation, such Vulnerable Identities 51 as large cities in the southwestern United States. Meanwhile, the technological systems that facilitate identity theft are those of large-scale databases that are poorly regulated and vulnerable to attack. Most of these are operated by credit and telecommunications industries that hold profit motives over those for social good, such as privacy, but government databases are similarly vulnerable to compromise. The combination of economic vulnerabilities caused by postindustrialization and relaxed regulations for data protection may facilitate neoliberal forms of capital accumulation but also increase data vulnerability. Creating Identity Theft Identity theft can be understood, at least initially, as a set of practices for stealing someone’s personal information. This is usually done for the sake of receiving profit from a third party, which is a practice known as “financial identity theft”; other forms include “criminal identity theft,” where one provides law enforcement agents with someone else’s information, and “identity cloning,” where one adopts someone else’s identity to begin a new life or become a virtual doppelgänger of the victim.2 For the purposes of this chapter, the term identity theft will be used primarily to indicate financial identity theft, which is its most widely publicized form. Such identity-theft practices can include dumpster diving for personal information; stealing laptop computers, wallets, or physical files; hacking into computer databases; planting “Trojan horse” or keystroke-tracking programs on personal computers (which will then “phone home” to send information back over the Internet); “skimming” credit card or ATM information with magnetic strip readers; “phishing” for valuable information through e-mail solicitations that appear to come from legitimate sources; “pharming” information by redirecting Internet traffic to illegitimate sites that appear credible and then asking users to enter or “update” credit card numbers, passwords, or other identifiers; and so on. Beyond these practices, identity theft must also be understood as a “moral panic” and as a powerful myth that enrolls individuals, whether victims, criminals , state agents, or industry employees, into new social relations and forms of life. Moral panics are widespread—but largely spurious—beliefs in threats to the social order posed by dangerous groups, such as identity-theft perpetrators . The media act as “moral entrepreneurs” that foster fear in the public of its vulnerability to identity-theft attack by online hackers capturing credit card information, drug users sifting through one’s trash, or scam artists calling to request sensitive personal...


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Subject Headings

  • National security -- United States
  • Internal security -- United States.
  • Electronic surveillance -- United States.
  • Technology -- Social aspects.
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