Identity Theft

2007-11-29

George Reisman asks an interesting question: If identity theft is indeed a form of theft, then isn't one's identity a form of property (in particular, a form of intellectual property)?

Well, maybe. Recently my credit card number was stolen or compromised or whatever you want to call it. I received a call from the fraud department at Wells Fargo asking me to verify certain transactions, which turned out to be fraudulent, so they promptly cancelled my card.

Now, who owns my credit card number? I haven't looked at my credit card agreement lately, but I'd bet that the account belongs to Visa or maybe Wells Fargo. If I violate the terms of the agreement, I don't get to keep the account or the card or the number. Based on the terms of the agreement, I have exclusive use over the number. If someone else gets a hold of the number and tries to use it, they are committing fraud because they are not authorized to use the number. I'm not convinced that this is really identity theft -- it's more like fraudulent misrepresentation.

The same reasoning might apply to driver's license numbers (owned by the DMV), social security numbers (owned by the SSA), bank account numbers (owned by my bank), and so on. Sure, in a sense they are just numbers in a database somewhere, but those numbers represent a contractual agreement, and if someone attempts to use that number outside the context of the agreement then they are committing fraud. Even if I use the number in violation of the agreement then I too am committing fraud, which to me is a clue that this is not a matter of intellectual property theft, or at least theft of an "identity" that is intellectual property I own (after all, how can I steal my own intellectual property?).

Dr. Reisman goes on to discuss trademarks as a form of intellectual property, but I have not given enough thought to that topic yet so I will refrain from discussing it.


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