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
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
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 the
140 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.