By Hiawatha Bray | March 21, 2005
Identity theft is a nasty crime with a catchy name -- too catchy for our own good. Identity theft, though important, isn't the root problem, and focusing on it may distract us from real solutions.
And we need solutions badly. For a month or so, we've fretted over the news that careless database companies had sold crooks a couple hundred thousand Social Security numbers. Meanwhile, Boston College warns about 120,000 graduates that a computer hacker may have gained access to their personal information by raiding a computer that contained the alumni database.
It's bad enough that crooks can steal our personal data, or even purchase it. But it gets worse: They can often find the same stuff with Google. At least they can if they're as smart as Latanya Sweeney, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.
In a paper she will present this week in California, Sweeney describes a program of hers that scans Google search results for files containing names and Social Security numbers. In her test of the software, Sweeney tracked down 140 job hunters who had posted resumes on the Web. For some odd reason, they included their Social Security numbers -- easy pickings.
Sweeney's motives are pure; she wrote another program to e-mail the140 people and warn them of the threat. Nearly all cleaned up their resumes. Sweeney has proposed a service called Internet Angel that would automatically scour the Net and alert people if their Social Security numbers are online.