The simulation of identity

Financial Cryptography describes the alleged mass forgery of identity documents in the US. You can buy a set for $300, but it costs far more than that to get your (genuine) name off the Terrorist Watch list. So, what is identity?

Our society relies more and more on external proof of identity: an ID card, a credit card, driving licence, etc. Show one and you are who it says you are. (This goes to conceptually absurd lengths in UK anti-money laundering practice. Banks are supposed to demand certain documents before they can open an account for you: but they are under no obligation to check that the documents are genuine. So if I show them a passport from an unusual country, they may accept it as proof, even though they cannot know what it should look like.)

Meanwhile, the US and other countries have huge databases of information, used to identify terrorists and criminals, which sometimes go wrong and prevent decent people from boarding aircraft, making financial transactions, etc., because their details resemble those of a terrorist, or because they are the victim of identity fraud – meaning someone stole or forged their documents. According to Financial Cryptography, more than 28,000 people have filed forms to correct such misunderstandings; the US anti-terrorist database holds 400,000 names.

If I can spend your money and hide behind your name, simply by forging documents, smart cards, etc., and linking myself to a set of database entries that should relate to you, where does my identity lie?

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The simulation of Identity

Financial Cryptography has a piece on the costs of forging identity documents. Here in the UK, a passport apparently costs £350 – £1000, and the better ones are completely capable of fooling immigration officials, allowing you to open bank accounts, etc.

As our government and financial community lean more and more towards identification by documents, numbers and chips/ RFIDs, so the simulation of identity becomes more possible. I suppose its the price of size and convenience: once upon a time you knew your bank staff personally, but then that meant you had to go to the branch to complete transactions.

Ive just been to Brussels: according to an exhibition I saw there, the personal identity card (lets leave it in its natural language, the Personalenausweis) was invented by the german invaders to subjugate and control the occupied Belgian population. European governments found them so useful theyve been with us ever since, and the British government now plans to introduce them here as well.

The problem, though, is that we are reaching a stage where the documentation is our identity. The real me cant do some things (eg open a bank account) that an impostor with my documents can do. This is why identity theft is possible: in an impersonal society which likes black box solutions to problems, you are only as good as your documents, in fact they can stand up on their own and live your life for you (with someone else in tow). They simulate you, to all intents and purposes. The bank looks for paper and PIN numbers, which it associates with me: those simulacra operate the system perfectly well without the thing they represent. The simulation has become the thing it simulates, for most practical purposes.

According to Cyranos Weblog, Jean Baudrillard recently gave an interview to the New York Times, which included:

Q: At 76, you are still pushing your famous theory about “simulation” and the “simulacrum,” which maintains that media images have become more convincing and real than reality.

A: All of our values are simulated. What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? Its a simulation of freedom.

Q: So you dont think that the U.S. invaded Iraq to spread freedom?

A: What we want is to put the rest of the world on the same level of masquerade and parody that we are on, to put the rest of the world into simulation, so all the world becomes total artifice and then we are all-powerful. Its a game.

You dont have to agree with Baudrillard to be concerned that it may not only be media images that are now more convincing than reality.

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