High Security

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The other day, I was flipping through my copy of J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," and I noticed a receipt in the book. I'm not sure if I was using it as a bookmark, or if it just ended up there by mistake. Holden Caulfield, however, would not be impressed, because it was a receipt for my February 1997 trip to Disneyland.
I mention this only because I was startled to see printed on the receipt my entire Visa number, my expiration date, and my full name. Apparently, there wasn't enough room to fit my mother's maiden name on there, but I'm sure someone was looking into building a bigger receipt to accommodate that information. As much as I would love to blame then, this wasn't the fault of Disney. I'm sure every credit card machine was printing out this information then, under the premise of "Hey, we have all this information. Why not print it out?"

Let's just say that privacy wasn't always such a big deal then. I remember when I was in college -- way back when the economy was going to hell and a Bush was in the White House -- and took a math class with about 400 people in it. Our grades on each test were posted publicly, not by name but by social security number. So, you would go to this open building, and on the wall would be a massive list of 400 social security numbers. The irony is that they did this to ensure privacy.

Despite all the information that was out there, identity theft didn't seem to be a big problem back then. I think it was because of the sheer number of identities that could be stolen. When 100% of the country's population has their personal information publicly accessible, the chances of your information being stolen are minimal. It was as if we were all playing one big game of Identity Theft Roulette. Each time, an identity was stolen, there was only a one in three hundred million chance that it would be yours.

Whose social security number will the ball land on? Oh, it's John Smith of New York. You're the lucky winner of Identity Theft Roulette, where the grand prize is a cruise around the world billed to your credit card. Thanks for playing.

The rest of us were safe, while poor John Smith was busy complaining to an incredulous credit card company that he didn't just buy a cruise.

"But I don't understand, Sir. It has to be you. Why would anyone else have your number?"

Now, of course, it's much more difficult for a criminal to steal an identity. People are more cautious and less private information is out there than before. That just means that if you are careless -- and God knows we are all careless at some point -- then there is a better chance that your information will be the information stolen.

And so we are stuck with more and more passwords, PINs, and security questions -- "What color house did your best friend's neighbor live in before she was arrested?"

I have perhaps the best security system around, since my father has access to one of my accounts. This means that I give him my password, and he logs onto my account. This is great, except that occasionally they ask security questions, which he ends up answering.

Now, when I do log onto my account, I'm met with the most surreal security test ever. I don't have to remember what my favorite movie is. No, I have to remember what my father thinks my favorite movie is. Periodically, I call him up, and we have conversations like:

"Dad, who's my favorite athlete?"

"Jim Rice."

"Are you sure? I thought it was David Ortiz."

"No, I'm pretty sure it's Jim Rice."

Recently, I was locked out of my account, not because I couldn't remember the name of my first boss, but because I couldn't remember who my father would think was the name of my first boss.

Yes, this system is so secure that often I can't even access my accounts. And that is really the future of security. One of these days, we will all have systems so utterly secure that only the criminals will be able to figure them out.
  • http://JoeLavin.com

    A periodic humor column, disguised as a blog. New columns published on Tuesdays or not as the case may be.

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  • I've written for Slate, The Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, McSweeney's, WBUR Radio, The Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail, and many other publications. Thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy my Internet column.

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