Saturday, July 09, 2005

Data Theft: How to Fix the Mess

A piece by Joseph Nocera in the New York Times lays it on the line.
Here's what Mr. Proxmire did. First, in 1970, he drafted a bill that banned the practice of "dropping" credit cards on people without their consent. Four years later, he pushed through a bill that limited consumer liability to $50 if a credit card was used fraudulently.

The banking industry was apoplectic as these bills became the law of the land, especially the $50 limit. Why, bank lobbyists complained, should the institutions have to take the hit if a customer was so careless as to have his wallet stolen or credit card snitched? Shouldn't people be responsible for their own actions?

But in time, the banks came to see that it owed Senator Proxmire a debt of gratitude. He hadn't hurt the credit card industry. He had saved it...

Which is why I wish William Proxmire were still on the case. What we need right now is someone in power who can put the burden for this problem right where it belongs: on the financial and other institutions who collect this data. Let's face it: by the time even the most vigilant consumer discovers his information has been used fraudulently, it's already too late. "When people ask me what can the average person do to stop identity theft, I say, 'nothing,' " said Bruce Schneier, the chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security. "This data is held by third parties and they have no impetus to fix it."

Mr. Schneier, though, has a solution that is positively Proxmirian in its elegance and simplicity. Most of the bills that have been filed in Congress to deal with identity fraud are filled with specific requirements for banks and other institutions: encrypt this; safeguard that; strengthen this firewall.

Mr. Schneier says forget about all that. Instead, do what Congress did in the 1970's - just put the burden on the financial industry. "If we're ever going to manage the risks and effects of electronic impersonation," he wrote recently on CNET (and also in his blog), "we must concentrate on preventing and detecting fraudulent transactions." And the only way to do that, he added, is by making the financial institutions liable for fraudulent transactions.

"I think business ingenuity is top notch," Mr. Schneier said in an interview. "And I think if you make it their problem, they will solve it."

Yes, he acknowledged, letting consumers off the hook might cause them to be less vigilant. But that is exactly what Senator Proxmire did and to great effect. Forcing the financial institutions to bear the entire burden will cause them to tighten up their procedures until the fraud is under control. Maybe they will invest in complex software. But maybe they'll take simpler measures as well, like making it a little less easy than it is today to obtain a credit card. Best of all, once people see these measures take effect - and realize that someone else is responsible for fixing the problems - their fear will abate.

As Senator Proxmire understood a long time ago, fear is the great enemy of commerce. Maybe this time, the banks will finally understand that as well.

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