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Executive Summary  Identity-related crime in films
 Identity-related crime in films



Definitions and typology of key terms

The linkage between an identifier and the person or role identified by the identifier – as Rost, Meints and Hansen state– can be rearranged in various ways:

  1. identity collision, e.g., when two people have the same name, or when a wrong e-mail address is used; this usually occurs unintentionally; 

  2. identity change, when someone takes on another identity, usually intentionally: 

2.1. identity takeover, when someone takes over the identity of another person without that person’s consent; 

2.2. identity delegation, when someone uses someone else’s identity with that person’s consent; 

2.3. identity exchange, when two or more people, with mutual consent, use each other’s identity; 

2.4. identity creation, when someone creates the identity of a non-existing person; 

  1. identity deletion, e.g., revoking a digital-signature certificate, or reporting the death of an existing person, for example in a newspaper (passive identity deletion); 

  2. identity restoration, i.e., restoring the link between identifier and person. 

If the rearrangement of identity linkage is illegal, then it is identity-related crime. Rost, Meints and Hansen suggest categorizing identity-related crime as subcategories in the above-mentioned typology when executed unlawfully. For example, the unlawful changing of someone’s identity roughly relates to what we understand as “identity fraud”, or ID fraud.

Finally, we use the following definitions in this study for the central notions. 

‘Identity-related crime’ concerns all punishable activities that have identity as a target or a principal tool.

‘Identity fraud’ is fraud or another unlawful activity committed with identity as a target or principal tool (i.e. identity “theft”, deceitful identity delegation, deceitful identity exchange, deceitful identity creation).

‘Identity “theft”’ is fraud or another unlawful activity where the identity of an existing person is used as a target or principal tool without that person’s consent.’

After Koops and Leenes, we use the terms illegal identity takeover and identity “theft” as synonyms.

Research question and methodological observations

This study is fundamentally desk research undertaking the task of examining the manifestation of identity-related crime in mass culture, primarily in films, and the basis of its occurrence in mainly American mainstream productions by using some typical examples in connection with the issue. 

The working hypothesis of our research is that the average person most often comes across the issue of identity “theft” indirectly rather than personally, through mass culture. It is mostly in films that the public has the opportunity to gain the most comprehensive idea of identity “theft”. As opposed to the news, which does not reach such a wide circle (not as much as a successful Hollywood production), in films that deal with the theme it is not simply the factual, raw data of identity “theft” that are in focus (to whom it happens, and the extent of the harm it causes) but viewers can get an answer to how it happens (what methods the “thief” applies) and what kind of consequences it has, and they are introduced to the issue from the standpoint of the dark side. Ultimately, the public is able to thoroughly contemplate the details of the theme, an opportunity not afforded by mainstream media news. 

It is not just depth that differs in how identity “theft” is presented in news and films, but its frequency too. The theme can be encountered more often in films than in the mainstream – early evening – news, in which only the really “special” cases are featured, which have significant news value compared with the rest of the news stories in general (e.g., either because they happen to celebrities, thus removing them from the mundane, or they take place on a very large scale, thus impacting a lot of people). 

The question we pose is: how real is the picture suggested to us in films, and what are the consequences  if this picture is received uncritically? In other words, how real a picture of identity “theft” does the person create who only tries to imagine the phenomenon of identity “theft” based on films?

The relation between media and reality

October 30, 1938 is a very important date in media history and one of the key reference point for those who state that media has serious impact on everyday life and behaviour. That day, H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds as adapted by George Orson Welles was broadcasted on the radio as a ‘news drama’. The story, featuring aliens from Mars attacking the Earth, was so credible that many listeners thought it was real, and they tried to escape and hide from the Martian invasion.

At least since this radio play, media researchers’ interest has turned to the investigation of relations of mass media and reality: what kind of effects do media have on society? Based for example on the experiences of Welles’ drama, researchers have stated that media messages are predominantly accepted by their audience, therefore media defines the world of a passive society. But in reality, the influence of media is many-sided and more complex than it was suggested in 1930s or 1940s.  

In the past 40-50 years, three themes have been on the horizon in mass-communication researches:  

  1. processes and effects on society (guided by social psychology), 

  2. institutions and organizations of media and how these are embedded in society (guided by organization theory), 

  3. messages, images and meanings which are mediated (guided by semiology). 

However, there is still a huge debate about the relation between society and media (traditionally film, radio and television, more recently computers and internet), and no clear consensus or a supreme grand theory has evolved in the topic. Some of the most important works within this field are George Gerbner’s cultivation theory, Blumler and Katz’s uses and gratification (UG) model, Maxwell McComb and Donald Shaw’s agenda-setting theory, and lately Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass’s media equation theory.

Cultivation theory is centred on the hypothesis that mass media, and mainly television, creates attitudes, and that heavy viewers’ attitudes are cultivated by the programmes they follow on TV. In Gerbner’s view, television is not a window on or a reflection of the world, but a world in itself. This theory is criticized because of its oversimplification of reality, as not only television has an impact on one life’s, but other people, communities, educational organizations and other media as well.

The UG model (on Uses and Gratifications) claims that people use media to gain different gratifications in personal identity, personal relationships, surveillance and diversion. The third element (surveillance) concerns the fact that media is a source of information and educates people about the world. However, UG also has its limitations; for example, it presumes that every beholder interprets the media messages in the same way.

Agenda-setting theory states that media affects the wider public on what issues to think about and what are the topics of social discussion. There is a proven connection between what is covered in media and news, and what people think is relevant.

The term media equation theory is derived from the equation “media = real life”, and means that people react to media and real life in the same way; people “interact” with television and other media as if they were real and follow the same rules as in the case of interpersonal interaction. Media is more than only a tool: it is part of our social reality. The human brain with its biological evolution is not capable yet to distinguish all the time the new communication technologies from non-mediated communication, and so it mainly perceives media as if it were real life. Hence, media has an influence on our life and our interpersonal reactions, since we take it as reality.

Of course, this study on identity-related crime is not the right place to elaborate a clarified standpoint on these theories or the relation of media and society in general. However, we use these theories in the next pages as a background of our research even if we do not refer back to them in all cases. In our examination of the representation of identity-related crimes in movies and real life, we highlight that movies may constitute reality as source of information and hence educate us; we employ UG theory here. At the same time, the usual lack of news on identity-related crime in primetime news may show the smaller relevance of the topic within Western society (as agenda-setting theory suggests).  

Following a short historical and theoretical introduction of identity change, our study will deal with international films (accompanied by a short classification of films with synopses), identity crime in reality (trends and data), and finally a short conclusion as to how the issue appears in films. 


Executive Summary  D5.2c-ID_crime_films_v1.0def_02.sxw  Identity-related crime in films
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