Forget a National Data-Security Standard; I’d Be Happy with a One-Word Correction

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 And nothing says “I am not familiar with this subject” like using outdated language.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.

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?

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.

photo credit: SalFalko via photopin cc

Written By

Jane Carpenter


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.

  • William Wells, CISSP,CIPP/IT,CISM, CISA, CRISC Mar 25, 2014

    Right on!
    Well said, Ms. Carpenter.
  • Brian T Mar 27, 2014

    Right on the Target. The sly insertion of management-speak to lessen the impact of the incident on the company (it's now a victimless crime..) looks like a cynical attempt to absolve the CEOs somehow.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

Latin America Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from Latin America

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Get more News »

IAPP Communities

Meet locally with privacy pros, dive deep into specialized topics or connect over common interests. Find your Community in KnowledgeNet Chapters, Sections and Affinity Groups.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Talk privacy and network with local members at IAPP KnowledgeNet Chapter meetings, taking place worldwide.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

NEW! Raise Staff Awareness

Equip all your data-handling staff to reduce privacy risk, with Privacy Core™ e-learning essentials.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The GDPR requires 75,000 DPOs

What’s the formula for DPO success? IAPP CIPP/E and CIPM training, certifications and our global privacy conferences.

Upcoming Web Conferences

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Team

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

NEW! FIP Designation

Recognizing the advanced knowledge and issue-spotting skills a privacy pro must attain in today’s complex world of data privacy.

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

IAPP-OneTrust PIA Platform

Simplify privacy impact assessments with this cloud-based customizable platform - free to IAPP members!

72% say privacy is now a board-level concern

Find out more about privacy governance in the IAPP-EY Annual Privacy Governance Report 2016.

Privacy Vendor List

Find a privacy vendor to meet your needs with our filterable list of global service providers.

IAPP Communities

Meet locally with privacy pros, dive deep into specialized topics or connect over common interests. Find your Community in KnowledgeNet Chapters, Sections and Affinity Groups.

More Resources »

Time to Get to Work at the Congress

It's almost here! Thought leadership, a thriving community and unrivaled education...the Congress prepares you for the challenges ahead. Register now!

Plan for the Summit

The world’s premier privacy conference returns with the sharpest minds, unparalleled programs and preeminent networking opportunities. Registration opens December 19!

Intensive Education at the Practical Privacy Series

This year's Series spotlights Data Breach, FTC and Consumer Privacy, GDPR and Government privacy issues. It’s the education you need NOW. Early bird ends Nov. 4!

Speak at the Symposium

The call for speakers is open! The Symposium returns to Toronto this Spring and programming is now underway. Looking to share your privacy prowess? Submit by November 20!

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»