20 November 2015

Swiped by Adam Levin: the ugly reality of identity theft


Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves. Adam Levin, Public Affairs, RPR £16.99

Fifty years from now, people will laugh at us.

‘Who could be that stupid’ they will ask ‘to put all their information on publicly accessible websites, available to everyone and anyone?’

And they will be right. Since the creation of Facebook and other social networks, we are used to feeding the internet with data about us, including sensitive information such as PIN numbers, card details, national insurance number, birthdays, affiliations etc. But this is not at all a recent phenomenon, Adam Levin warns us. It is just that today, in our hyper-connected, sharing-focused world, finding (and stealing and selling) information about consumers is much, much easier. Thoughtlessly, we go about shopping online, posting geotagged pictures, subscribing to blogs and mailing list, without the slightest ideas of what we are getting ourselves in. We thus provide bits and pieces of our everyday lives that, if patiently put together, make it very easy for others to know who we are, what we like, and what we do – in other words, making us easy prays to identity thieves.

Books like Swiped warn us of the dangers of actions that are considered harmless and routine in today’s highly connected world. Swiped is a practical, informative read which explains the technicalities of big data in a simple way, while revealing what we have been long hiding from: in the internet era, we are the product, we are monitored, and we, every day, at any time, can have our information taken and sold for a profit.

Swiped paints a grim picture of our times, highlighting the many flaws of living in a technologically globalised environment. In the opening chapters, Levin take us through a short history of identity theft, debunking several myths and leaving us wondering how many times our details have already been stolen.

The analogy of the data-bank is particularly striking. Levin compares our online data to currency, a deposit that we provide to banks, websites, telephone companies and social networks. When it comes to real money, it would be foolish to put our savings in a bank that is under construction, whose walls are yet to be built and whose security is not trustworthy. And yet, this is what we are doing with our data. Fascinated by the potential of the Internet of Things, we not only fill our computers with precious information, but we provide personal data to basically any synchronised device in our possession. We are essentially trusting with our precious data-deposit a ‘bank’ whose walls are under construction. Sometimes we do not even know where those walls are supposed to be. Yet our data are already sitting there, ready to be snatched.

From viral tweets to large scale behavioural studies, from hacked databases to phishing, Levin demonstrates how out of hand the situation has become. And here comes the realisation: “the chances that you are reading this book right now just for fun and have not yet become a victim of some forms of identity-related crime are declining by the minutes. Worse yet are the chances that at least some of your personally identifiable information hasn’t already been used to commit a crime… or bundled with other kinds of information to be sold in a criminal transaction”.

Deal with it, Levin states, bluntly: data breaches are an everyday occurrence, and it will happen to you.

But we can do something, at least. In the following chapters, Levin explains what types of identity theft we can incur and what can we do to try and protect our virtual – and real – identities. Levin’s tips seem common sense – but then, maybe this is the point: common sense is used too rarely on the internet. Our virtual lives seem so ethereal, so inconsistent, that we simply are not (yet) used to be cautious about what we feed the web.

Swiped’s aim is to change this, and trust me, Levin’s account is persuasive (read: terrifying) enough to make us stop, think, and take better care of our identities.

Beatrice Faleri is Editor in Chief of Perspectives.