Because a lot of people seem interested in 40-year anniversaries right now, highlighted by the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, I thought it would be helpful to look at what passed for identity theft back then.
I found a New York Times story, dated Jan. 18, 1968, about the arrests of five people who stole credit cards. First National City Bank had decided, as a token of appreciation, to send about 1 million of their best customers something called an "Everything Card." None of the customers asked for the card, nor did any of them have to sign an agreement. They just got them in the mail. Or not, as it turned out. And because they didn't know they were getting the cards, they also didn't know if the cards were stolen along the way.
The five thieves apparently had to do a lot of work. This involved burglaries, thefts and some pocket-picking. After all that, they used the cards to buy clothes and housewares. The headline lamented that these thefts were "costly to (the) bank." Indeed, the loss was estimated at up to half a million dollars.
Today, of course, that sort of thing wouldn't be considered newsworthy. Instead, Utahns collectively shuddered last week as a grim-faced Lorris Betz, the senior vice president for Health Sciences at the University of Utah, had to explain that someone had stolen a metal box containing the Social Security numbers and other identifying information of 2.2 million patients of the university's hospitals and clinics.
In 1968, it would have been impossible to store 2.2 million records in a metal box, let alone in a car. Even if a thief had figured out how to carry all that stuff away, he wouldn't have known what to do with it. Today, we all know how quickly millions of Social Security numbers can be misused, a million times over, in a matter of seconds.
Experts would say this is further evidence that technological change is exponential, not linear. In other words, you can't measure how far technology has come since 1968 and relate it in any way to how far that year was from 1928.
Or, in other, other words, if you shudder at the thought of what a resourceful thief could do with 2.2 million records in 2008, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Writing in The Futurist magazine this month, Gene Stephens, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, tries to put this in some perspective. He quotes another futurist, inventor Raymond Kurzweil, as saying the 21st century won't experience 100 years of progress. "It will be more like 20,000 years of progress." Even trying to predict what things will be like in 2025 would be like trying to predict 5,000 years of changes in science and technology.
That doesn't stop Stephens from trying, of course. He believes by then we may have totally discarded today's notion of computers and the Internet. The world may be one of endless invisible "nanodevices" that fill the atmosphere around us and give everyone instant access to information through little "nanoimplants." Every person would have a unique logon to access this invisible world.
Think what a resourceful criminal could do in such a place. Actually, Stephens believes you can't. There would be "scores of new schemes" we can't imagine today.
However, it would be possible in such a world to retrieve every word spoken and every deed done from a database. If you did it, a "nanobot" somewhere recorded it. The University of Utah could see exactly who stole that box of records if there happened to be any need for a box in the first place.
Such a world would be a difficult place in which to preserve civil liberties. But without using the technology for tighter controls, criminals could have a heyday.I'm hoping this column ends up as a yellowed clipping people laugh at as totally wrong in 2025. As much as I know we can't go back to the simpler chaos of 1968, I'm not too thrilled about a future that involves some university official announcing grim-faced that someone hijacked his nanoimplants.