Wired on Identity Theft
This is a good editorial from Wired on identity theft.
Following are the fixes we think Congress should make:
Require businesses to secure data and levy fines against those who don’t. Congress has mandated tough privacy and security standards for companies that handle health and financial data. But the rules for credit agencies are woefully inadequate. And they don’t cover other businesses and organizations that handle sensitive personal information, such as employers, academic institutions and data brokers. Congress should mandate strict privacy and security standards for anyone who handles sensitive information, and apply tough financial penalties against companies that fail to comply.
Require companies to encrypt all sensitive customer data. Any standard created to protect data should include technical requirements to scramble the data—both in storage and during transit when data is transferred from one place to another. Recent incidents involving unencrypted Bank of America and CitiFinancial data tapes that went missing while being transferred to backup centers make it clear that companies think encryption is necessary only in certain circumstances.
Keep the plan simple and provide authority and funds to the FTC to ensure legislation is enforced. Efforts to secure sensitive data in the health and financial industries led to laws so complicated and confusing that few have been able to follow them faithfully. And efforts to monitor compliance have been inadequate. Congress should develop simpler rules tailored to each specific industry segment, and give the FTC the necessary funding to enforce them.
Keep Social Security numbers for Social Security. Social Security numbers appear on medical and voter-registration forms as well as on public records that are available through a simple internet search. This makes it all too easy for a thief to obtain the single identifying number that can lead to financial ruin for victims. Americans need a different unique identifying number specifically for credit records, with guarantees that it will never be used for authentication purposes.
Force credit agencies to scrutinize credit-card applications and verify the identity of credit-card applicants. Giving Americans easy access to credit has superseded all other considerations in the cutthroat credit-card business, helping thieves open accounts in victims’ names. Congress needs to bring sane safeguards back into the process of approving credit—even if it means adding costs and inconveniencing powerful banking and financial interests.
Extend fraud alerts beyond 90 days. The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows anyone who suspects that their personal information has been stolen to place a fraud alert on their credit record. This currently requires a creditor to take “reasonable” steps to verify the identity of anyone who applies for credit in the individual’s name. It also requires the creditor to contact the individual who placed the fraud alert on the account if they’ve provided their phone number. Both conditions apply for 90 days. Of course, nothing prevents identity thieves from waiting until the short-lived alert period expires before taking advantage of stolen information. Congress should extend the default window for credit alerts to a minimum of one year.
Allow individuals to freeze their credit records so that no one can access the records without the individuals’ approval. The current credit system opens credit reports to almost anyone who requests them. Individuals should be able to “freeze” their records and have them opened to others only when the individual contacts a credit agency and requests that it release a report to a specific entity.
Require opt-in rather than opt-out permission before companies can share or sell data. Many businesses currently allow people to decline inclusion in marketing lists, but only if customers actively request it. This system, known as opt-out, inherently favors companies by making it more difficult for consumers to escape abusive data-sharing practices. In many cases, consumers need to wade through confusing instructions, and send a mail-in form in order to be removed from pre-established marketing lists. The United States should follow an opt-in model, where companies would be forced to collect permission from individuals before they can traffic in personal data.
Require companies to notify consumers of any privacy breaches, without preventing states from enacting even tougher local laws. Some 37 states have enacted or are considering legislation requiring businesses to notify consumers of data breaches that affect them. A similar federal measure has also been introduced in the Senate. These are steps in the right direction. But the federal bill has a major flaw: It gives companies an easy out in the case of massive data breaches, where the number of people affected exceeds 500,000, or the cost of notification would exceeds $250,000. In those cases, companies would not be required to notify individuals, but could comply simply by posting a notice on their websites. Congress should close these loopholes. In addition, any federal law should be written to ensure that it does not pre-empt state notification laws that take a tougher stance.
As I’ve written previously, this won’t solve identity theft. But it will make it harder and protect the privacy of everyone. These are good recommendations.