Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May I have your life, please?

Identity theft is far from new, but with the growing popularity of online accessibility, this has become a major risk that affects pretty much everybody. While most Americans are well aware of this risk and are taking several measures to prevent it, for others this is not so simple.

For Americans, the most common type of identity theft is a stolen password to an online service. If someone was clever enough to get you to hand over your password (with Phishing, for example), he can login to your account and if it's a bank account or PayPal, steal all your money. Another type of identity theft is stealing a person's Social Security Number. With that, a thief can gain access directly into things like medical records, bank accounts and much more. Most people are aware of this, and safeguard their SSN closely, but in other countries, this is not the case.

In Israel, for example, the equivalent of a SSN is the Identity Number, which is a 9 digit number assigned to each person when he/she is born. This number is unique, and will follow that person to the grave. It's printed on each citizen's Identity Card and drivers license and is the primary means of authenticating a person's identity. Unfortunately, the national identity card is notoriously easy to forge, which is why the Israeli government has been working on a smart-card based replacement. What's even more unfortunate is that the entire database of the Israeli population has been leaked to the public, and is freely available to anyone who knows how to download pirated music. In fact, this database, known as "Hipuson", "Shimoshon" or "Mirsham", has been going around for many years now. It's available on the Emule network, as well as many file hosting services, although the plethora of versions in the wild make it a little hard to find the most updated version. This database contains not only the full names and ID number of every living citizen in the state, but also their full address, birth date and parents name. With simple correlation, one can locate his parents, siblings, children and even his neighbors, and some versions of the database even have this function built in. Politicians, singers and other celebrities are not exempt, and their info is also included even if it was specifically redacted from the national phone directory. Using this database, anybody can choose a random person, or his enemies, and create a fake ID with their details and his/her picture. As I said, it is rather easy, and anyone with color laser printer, bitmap editor and laminating machine can do this. Once you have an ID card, you can access the targets bank account, his medical records and even sell his/her house and disappear with the money.

What can the Israeli citizen do? Basically, nothing. No one knows exactly how the database is leaked, but there are many parties who have access to it. When the Israeli Police started investigated this issue in March 2008, multiple breaches were detected, from unpatched servers to server-rooms left unlocked and unsupervised. Changing your ID number is not possible for a citizen, and this has been done only in rare cases where serious damage has been done to a person. In the recent report filed by the Auditor General exposes this outrageous conduct, but like most of these reports, it is likely to be completely buried or acted-upon very slowly. Perhaps the best solution is to keep your cash under the mattress?

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