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Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5761

Crispin Sartwell

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Consumer Reports

Whatever identifies you, someone wants to steal it -- My dictionary defines "identity" as "the condition of being oneself and not another." In this sense, identity is whatever it is that makes you who you are.

This lends considerable paradox to the concept of "identity theft," which usually refers to the practice of impersonating someone in order to access their bank and credit card accounts. According to the Washington Post, there may be as many as half a million cases of identity theft each year.

It reveals much about the culture we have made together that your credit card and bank account numbers are considered to constitute your identity. In our little world there's only one thing that makes you who you are: money. Someone who has your money has actually stolen the inmost essence of you, which means I personally am owned lock, stock, and essence by Citibank. It follows that if you're broke, you don't exist at all.

But as a matter of fact, whatever it is that makes you you, people are going to find a way to take it.

This month, it was reported that several scientists are going ahead with plans to clone a human being. Now if your identity is a matter of your genes and the way you look -- if identity is biological -- then cloning swipes your identity or at least reproduces it and hands it to someone else.

Meanwhile, the city of Tampa has introduced an extremely sophisticated imaging package that snaps your picture if you're in the "entertainment district"and matches it against the mugshots of fugitives. The FaceIt program is also being used by National Security Agency, the Defense Department, the Justice Department and the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Such programs could eventually allow the authorities to know where you are and what you're doing at all times, a condition of lockdown surveillance that would make the Stasi look like Indian trackers.

When westerners first showed up, toting cameras, among various "primitive" people, the folks being photographed supposedly feared lest the machines rob them of their souls or suck their very identities out their eyeballs. Now these fears have become a reality, and if your identity depends on having a zone of privacy and autonomy in which to make decisions and express yourself, you're fading fast.

Also recently announced is a software package that claims to be able to produce a perfect mimicry of any human voice. Just type in the words and your computer says them back to you in the voice of Mae West, or whomever it may be.

This is a great boon for advertisers, as now Mae West can be enlisted as a spokesbomb for Zima. It is also a great boon for practical jokers who want to call your boss and cuss her out in your voice. If your identity has anything to do with your voice, then, according to my meat thermometer, you're done.

And so on. Whatever you have, whatever you are, we will strip it from you. In the words of the classic Soft Boys song "I Wanna Destroy You," "when I have destroyed you I'll come pickin at your bones./And you won't have a single atom left to call your own."

And so we are left to ponder this question: Is there something about you that no one could steal, suppress, vaporize, duplicate, destory? Do you have a single atom left to call your own? What is it, in a world of electronic cash and electronic surveillance and electronic biology, that makes you you?

Sometimes in the dark night of my soul, after I've finished reading the newspaper online, I see a distant little glimmer of light that is not my screen saver. It's the elusive, dimly spied essence of me. If you happen to run into it, email it to me.

JWR contributor Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His website is Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS