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Identity-related crime: reality check  Identity-related crime in films



Despite the new ICT-driven trends, identity “theft” and identity-related crimes are not limited to the technology-driven modern world. We found examples from history and literature from long before the age of technology. These differed in the sense that in the old days, the successful “theft” of identity used to depend on the direct action of the perpetrator and this activity was usually visible. Now, there is a stronger indirect element of technological mediation, and there is less and less personal physical contact. Technical systems can completely hide the identity taker, who does not even need to resemble the victim when taking and using an identifier such as a social-security number, a credit-card number or the login data of an existing person.  

At this point, it must be noted that popular films on the theme of identity “theft” are often misleading, since current technological trends and the reality of regulatory initiatives present a vastly different picture than the one painted by films in connection with the issue. Film productions, especially mainstream, mass-cultural products, oversimplify the issue and depict it as if victims have no means to defend themselves and are entirely at the mercy and whim of identity “thieves”. These films focus on the rare cases where the targeted individual is fully robbed of his identity, falls victim to fraud, and is completely replaced in society by the identity “thief”, thus falsely suggesting this as a standard or prototypical form of identity “theft”. This is understandable, since such a plot is far more interesting and exciting, and it offers more twists and turns, making it more effective on the screen compared with the numerous credit-card frauds and other abuse cases that take place in real life. The bulk of real-life identity “theft” cases cause financial damage but not a complete disruption of the social life of the victims. In reality, people are often unaware of falling victim to fraud with one or two data stolen from them; the anonymous criminals do not strive to completely destroy their victims’ personality and identity but “simply” to make money out of their crime without being seen or shedding blood. Such cases are unsuitable for a good story that stands its ground in Hollywood, and hence are ignored in mainstream films.

Ultimately, the representation of identity “theft” in mass culture is not a technological or legal issue but rather one related to visuality (what can most effectively be presented, what can be sold well) and culture (to what is the audience receptive). Films do not draw so much on technological trends and current situations but rather on primeval stories and fears. Most probably, identity “theft” is a permanent feature in mass culture, since identity and its integrity, preservation and protection from others form an integral part of the human mind and society.

However, with the development of technology, it is becoming increasingly difficult to control certain (electronic) identifiers, and thus the potential for abuse is ever greater. The fact that the average user still does not regard his digital identifiers as parts of his “real identity” leads to an underestimation of the imminence of the threat, resulting in digital parts of identity being protected less than elements of identity that are connected to his physical presence. Digital parts of identity seem to be less integrated into the identity as a whole, often resulting in a lower level of protection.  

There is likely to be a connection between the fact that mass media simply ignore the circumstances of identity “theft” in real life and the trend that the majority of users disregards keeping their identity secure. This is precisely because of the link between media and society that media theory shows. Films have an impact on the world-view of citizens and educate them by providing a source of information on the world. Citizens do not recognize their own situation in mainstream films focus on the extreme cases of identity takeover in which the victim is virtually deleted from society. They do not know of such cases from personal knowledge or from the news. Therefore, they will view identity “theft” as fictitious and unrelated to stories they do read about in the news of identity data being abused for financial gain. The one-sided and exotic picture painted in films makes them unaware of the less far-reaching forms of identity-related crime that occur in real life and that are facilitated by weak protection of digital identifiers. 


We do not want to suggest that films should focus on how “A” illegally removed 115 dollars from “B”’s account in order to raise users’ awareness of identity “theft”. But, given the fact that media shapes viewers’ world-views, it would be helpful for films to show that when someone switches on a PC, an anti-virus application is run (it could take about 2 extra seconds in the film). Fastening safety belts and the introduction of non-smoking protagonists have been standard elements in films for some time now. However, despite the didactic film language (for example Hollywood) used in certain subjects, the warning against the dangers of identity “theft” will in all likelihood not be represented in a finely chiselled way in the near future, since the awareness surrounding identity “theft” should first be raised, also in Hollywood. With this, we have come full circle. 

Perhaps, the situation is not as “hopeless” as it might seem in the mediation of mass culture, since most of the cases sketched in films cannot be executed in real life and are merely exciting and exaggerated versions of extreme cases. Still, those trying to form a picture about this issue only from films will most certainly end up with false impressions and remove the issue of identity-related crime into the realm of fiction and urban legends. The bias of films to focus on extreme and unrealistic cases therefore poses a risk that currently existing technological trends in identity-related crime and legal, organisational, and technical countermeasures are underdeveloped in citizens’ world views. Given the importance of awareness-raising to combat identity-related crime, it is vital that actions are taken to adjust the picture of identity-related crime, in particular identity “theft”, as it is sketched in the media at large.

Film producers could contribute to this by showing standard data-security measures, such as a virus check, as part of everyday life, but films are not likely in future to sketch a substantially different picture of identity “theft”, given the primeval appeal of extreme identity takeover as a theme in visual media. The required adjustment of the picture of identity-related crime will therefore have to rely on other mass-media, such as non-fiction literature, documentaries, the press, and blogs. 




Identity-related crime: reality check  D5.2c-ID_crime_films_v1.0def_02.sxw  Appendix
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