I recently had the opportunity to watch recorded versions of the congressional hearings on cybercrime and the post-Thanksgiving data breaches. I came away confused and longing for a simpler time.
Not for a time, as you may think, when we didn’t have international computer hackers. I’m longing for a time when language didn’t fail us, when words would capture a concept and the definition would be so right that it addressed whatever future circumstances brought.
In the few hours I spent watching the hearings, I heard lots of words used to refer to the folks whose information had been stolen and who were consequently placed at risk for identity theft:
When did a violation of the criminal codes of most states and the federal government morph into the kinder, gentler “consumers?” Etymology can be a good thing, and I’m certain there are lots of previously used words or symbols that have found entirely new meanings. (For example, I’ve lived long enough to have seen a “number sign” become a “pound sign” and now a “hashtag.”) But “guests?”
For the past four years, according to both the FTC and the IRS, the fastest-growing type of identity theft is stolen income refund fraud (SIRF), which has more than quadrupled in just a two-year period. This type of identity theft requires the theft of someone’s Social Security number, NOT their credit or debit card.
When I hear the word “consumer,” it conjures up images of a trip to the mall with my credit card. It does not prompt a mental link to the Secret Service or to the FBI or to my local police. Hearing someone refer to “consumers” when talking about identity theft or data breaches is as jarring and anachronistic as watching an old movie and seeing someone pull out a cell phone.
Every industry has its own vernacular, its own commonly understood terms that are shared among folks with a particular expertise. And nothing says “I am not familiar with this subject” like using outdated language.
Dealing with identity theft in most states requires folks to reportit as a crime. And, despite the apparently widespread use of the terms,there are no data breach consumer reports, no identity theft customer reports being logged at your local police station.
The congressional proponents of a national data security standard have referred to folks whose information was taken in data breaches as “consumers.” The FTC recently announced its top 10 consumer complaints, and leading the list was “identity theft.” Really? Exactly when did being on the receiving end of the most frequently committed crime in the U.S. involve the consumption of goods?
At the time the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 was enacted, no one could have foreseen the more recent forms of this crime, which have nothing to do with purchases and bank cards.
Did we miss that turn in the road, and does our choice of words demonstrate indifference or just a lack of understanding?
And since these terms are acquiring a new meaning, do we now need a whole new subcategory of data breaches and identity thefts?
Will there soon be an identity theft/data breach lexicon with definitions that depend on the type of identity theft committed? Will there be folks who have sustained “consumer” identity theft versus income tax fraud versus use of someone’s identity in a criminal situation? Because I can assure you—in cases such as IRS identity theft or the use of someone’s name to create a false criminal record—being a “consumer,” a “customer” or a “guest” had absolutely nothing to do with the situation.
Does this now open the door to a revised terminology for other criminal behavior? Is the person whose car was stolen a “consumer” because they purchased a car?
These are crimes.
And it’s time we took a step back. Time we made a point of using words that accurately capture the circumstances and that do not trivialize the result.
And so, in the midst of all the rhetoric and posturing, I am desperately listening for the one word that—for the privacy community—represents the underlying reason for everything we do.
Because when it comes to identity theft and data breaches, there are no guests, no customers, no consumers. There are only victims.
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