Identity : parade or crisis?

Identity is often in the news these days. Whether ID cards would make the world a safer place. How to reduce the dangers of identity theft. Is all the information stored about us to our risk or benefit. And what about the paradox of identity creation! It can happen accidentally, as this story illustrates.

To start with some office history.

Once upon a very long time ago there were secretaries who took down dictation in shorthand, typed out the words on a typewriter (making carbon copies with a thin piece of black paper – that’s where CC comes from), and submitted the paper to their boss for correction.  Corrections would be made with white liquid quick setting Snopake rather than retyping the whole sheet; lots of corrections meant you could stand up the stiff paper on its own.  When secretaries were away a temporary stood in, very often unfamiliar with the office, the people, and the protocols.

And thereby hangs the story of accidental identity creation

The new product development meeting was held monthly. In January, it had been attended by 12 people and generated lots of notes and action points.  The temporary Secretary was told to send the notes to everyone on the list of attendees, plus a file copy.  When the notes landed on desks, a certain Mr. A File appeared on the list of attendees; there was no problem, it was a simple mistake.

The next month the meeting came round again and a different temp was asked to send an invitation to everybody who attended the last meeting.  Out went the invitations to everybody… including Mr. A File. After the meeting action notes were issued and the attendees showed that Mr. File was on the list of ‘apologies for absence’

He wasn’t there again in March, but he was allocated some of the actions!  As always, the person who isn’t there is given the most to do.  AF initials appeared alongside many of the actions to be completed

And as always, the one who isn’t there get the most blame.  And Mr. File received a lot of blame in April.  Why hasn’t he responded on the actions?  Who has chased him up?  Is he off sick?  What’s his first name anyway? Alan or Alec or Arthur : no one could quite remember but they thought they recalled his face.

Attempts to reach him in the next few weeks proved fruitless, but his potential presence was noted by some of us who saw the joke and the opportunity.  A holiday form was put in for good old AF after all his hard work.  A request was put in for a phone number and he appeared in the phone listing.  Someone suggested he was underpaid and should get a rise; perhaps he had been missed off the pay database by grievous error from HR (aka Personnel in those days).  Perhaps his salary could be split between the jokers. But, alas, the usual Secretary returned and with her usual efficiency, she expunged poor Mr File.


A fine example of identity creation by mistake, rather than identity theft…and then how about identity confusion (and theft?)

Like the man at Bristol Zoo, who took the entry money for many years in a small kiosk you encountered at the gate of the car park. One day he didn’t turn up, nor did he for the next few days.

The Zoo asked the Local Council where he’d gone, and how soon could a replacement arrive. The Local Council asked the Dept of Culture; the Dept asked the Zoo; the Zoo recognised the question as it went full bureaucratic circle with no answer.

Our man was now abroad enjoying the revenue he’d been building at £5 a car for 10 years.

Who had appointed him in the role in the first place? The Council records found nothing, the Zoo drew a blank, the conclusion was clear…….he and his kiosk were self appointed, and self funded, and had made cynical (but creative) use of confused organisational bureaucracy. Identity and theft rolled into one. Are we to admire his cunning or condemn his stealing? An ethical dilemma?

James Freedman, sorted out his own ethical dilemma.  An expert pickpocket, he decided to use his talents to help the police and also create a stage show as ‘the Man of Steal’.  He frightened and amused audiences showing how easily their pockets could be picked, their pin numbers copied, their keys stolen, their passwords discovered.  At the end of his show, as the applause died away, he called for one of the audience members, a Mick Wilson, to check his wallet.  He then demonstrated how he had stolen Mick’s identity, having lifted an American Express card from that same wallet by bumping into him in the queue earlier.  While the show had been running, the ‘man of steal’ and some backstage help had searched the net and other sources building on details from that one card. They had created a passport with photo, a driving licence with photo, and other ID papers.  Apparently with all the information we all put out on social media, in Ancestry tree websites, emails and texts, it is not difficult to trace addresses, phone numbers, mother’s maiden name, passwords repeatedly used, bank PIN numbers.  The ‘man of steal’ said convincingly that if the police entered the theatre now he would have more of the identity of the person than Mick Wilson himself. 

A graphic illustration of the dilemma we face trying to secure our identity with more and more information. How much do we put ourselves at risk in trying to increase our safety?

Are ID cards a symbol of security or an invasion of privacy?

Do CCTV cameras make us feel safer against criminals or more exposed to our lives being recorded?

Mobile phone GPS helps keep a child secure on their journey to and from school, but who else has access to their exact movements?

What information is stored on all those cards we keep together in our bags and pockets, and is it to our benefit or loss?

Having missed a prebooked long train journey due to a delay on the tube, I approached the Help Desk at Paddington, annoyed but in no expectation of a refunded ticket. ‘Not my fault, I was on the tube in time’ They asked for my Rail card and there on the screen was indeed the proof that I started on the tube in good time, and the evidence that rendered me a free ticket for the next train. Good news. Except that there on the screen was also every journey I had made in the last month, stations, timing, the lot.  I was pleased and worried at the same time, not that I had anything to hide.

We have all experienced that sinking feeling, when we’ve mislaid our wallet or purse (why did I keep all those cards and passes in the same place?), our phone (did I leave it open with all those contacts?), our Bank Card (where did I hide that PIN number) or our keys (how much to get a new set, should I change all the locks?). It’s not just the bank balance they can obtain, but the identity of you and your family and friends.

It feels like a personal failure and a personal assault – how could I have been so stupid and ineffective? It takes some time to regain a sense of proportion for what could be lost. Perhaps Stephen Covey’s words from The 7 habits of Highly Effective People can shorten that time!

“We hear a lot today about identity theft. The greatest identity theft is not when someone takes your wallet or steals your credit card. The greater theft happens when we forget who we really are, when we begin to believe that our worth and identity come from how well we stack up compared to others, instead of recognizing that each of us has immeasurable worth and potential, independent of any comparison.”

― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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