continued Several Internet sites refer to "1 in 700" as the rate of convictions in identity-theft cases. Beth Givens, president of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, believes that the figure probably cannot be documented but that the number of cases that are even prosecuted is small. She calls police radio broadcasting of social security numbers "a careless practice that needs to be abandoned. Putting those numbers on the open airwaves," says Givens, "is an invitation to identity theft."
Keith Burt is director of the San Diego district attorney's Computer and Technology Crime High Tech Response Team. When I call, he says nobody has ever alerted him to problems associated with police use of social security numbers. Nonetheless, identity theft is a major preoccupation of his unit, says Burt. He acknowledges that careless transmission of social security numbers by police could be a problem. Whether and to what extent social security numbers are used in routine detentions, he says, is determined by different police departments. But Burt defends use of the numbers in identifying people. He calls the social security number a "key to the kingdom. When we suspect somebody who is saying, 'It's not me,' the social security number is one of the few truly reliable numbers we can use to make sure."
In contrast Greg Cook argues, "Police certainly don't need social security numbers to identify someone when they are doing routine checks for warrants." He notes that the driver's license numbers, physical descriptions, and dates of birth were enough to take suspicion off him the times he was confused with men police were looking for. The use of his social security number was unnecessary.
What about identity theft? Scott Fulkerson, executive director of the Citizens' Review Board on Police Practices, tells me by phone that nobody has ever complained to his organization about local police putting personal information on unsecured airwaves. "So my board doesn't yet have a position on the issue," says Fulkerson.
Cook believes that many people never consider that dissemination of their social security numbers and other identity data will result in a problem. "A lot of people would say, 'What's the big deal? I don't have anything to hide.' Okay, I say, then turn loose your MasterCard number. People don't realize how serious identity theft is until they become its victim. It can take months and even years to undo the damage."
Three weeks ago, as though to add an exclamation point to Cook's concerns, San Diego police arrested Jacqueline Lawrence, an employee of the city's General Services Department, for stealing Water Department customers' identities to obtain credit for making online purchases. The Union-Tribune recorded on January 18 district attorney Bonnie Dumanis's boast about the arrest: "If you think you can steal someone's identity in San Diego and get away with it, you are wrong."