Identity Theft (part 2)

As a follow-up to what I wrote earlier this week about identity theft, I need to clarify a few things. Not so much about what happened, but about where I stand on some of the issues I touched on. In particular, here are two quotes from the earlier article:

“And even if [the police] can’t do anything about this instance, it may help them in some other, wider inquiry. (So if you’re involved with ‘Felix’, here’s fair warning to you: the server logs are being burned to CD and sent to the rozzers.)”

“I am usually more than happy to let you use my photos or text, but you have to ask me first, and I reserve the right to say “no” if I think you’re a sick freak.”

Two issues here. The first is about police, or other government authorities, getting access to information like my server logs. I don’t have a privacy statement on this web site, and I have never made any guarantees about what I will or won’t do with data that I collect. I don’t go out of my way to collect information about you, gentle reader, but just by being here you do leave behind certain virtual fingerprints. Your IP address, for example. And if you arrived here via a link from another web site, then that ends up in the server log, too. And If you leave a comment on one of my entries, then I’ve probably got your email address, even though it’s not displayed for everyone else to see.

So I know stuff about you, and I’m under no obligation to tell you what I’m going to do with that data. (So long as I use it for personal purposes. The Data Protection Registrar might have something to say if I decided to set up a commercial mailing database with it.)

And if I choose to hand that data over to the police, what’s the problem? If you’re just an innocent web surfer, then you have nothing to worry about, right? It’s only people with something to hide who would have any reason to be concerned.


That’s the start of the road to identity cards and universal DNA databases. The argument “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have no worries” is easy to swallow in peaceful times, when you are confident that the laws of the land are just. But peaceful times rarely last, and laws change. You may (may) trust your government now, but what about next year, when a different set of people are in charge? What happens when it becomes illegal to share music files with your friends? (Oops, it already is.) Will you still be as happy that you provided that DNA sample, or stayed quiet about identity cards?

I believe that the government and police should know certain things about us. But we must understand the drawbacks as well as the benefits. For example, DNA evidence may produce greater conclusiveness and sounder judgements in many cases. But precisely because of the technique’s power, it is prone to being accepted as infallible. And if there is some kind of accident, or a mix-up with samples, the strength of DNA evidence makes it all the more difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction.

(On the other hand, anecdotal evidence (hi, Google!) suggests that DNA evidence has done more to clear wrongfully convicted people than it has to mistakenly convict the innocent.)

With every piece of private information you give up, you surrender a small piece of personal freedom for the good of your community. In return you benefit from increased personal security. But this is an ideal. In practice, you don’t give up your information directly to your society, you give it to the people who run your society. So you need to ask yourself: do you trust those people not to use the information for their own ends, in order to secure their position of power?

Hmm. Now I’m coming across as paranoid and suspicious of authority, rather than confident in their abilities to deal appropriately with this instance of wrongdoing.

Basically, there’s a balance to be struck. I’m just not sure where it lies.

On to the second issue now: paedophilia. From what I wrote, leading up to the second quotation, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that I think paedophiles are “sick freaks”. This is not the case.

Harming a child is a crime. No question. If you go out and buy kiddie porn, you’re not harming children directly, but you are endorsing an industry that harms children, and ensuring that such abuse continues. That is also a crime.

So what about people who are simply turned on by the thought of children, but who don’t act on these impulses? Our society deems these fantasies to be more than just unacceptable, but actively despicable. Even without having committed a crime, this state of mind is considered to be disgusting and offensive in itself.

A hundred years ago, society considered homosexuality in much the same way. Even now gays suffer prejudice and discrimination.

I don’t want to suggest that a hundred years from now paedophilia will be considered socially acceptable. I don’t think that will be the case. Any just society must protect those who can’t protect themselves, and children are simply not capable of defending themselves against abuse by adults.

What I am saying is that there is a difference between what a person thinks and what he does. If a man harbours sexual thoughts about a woman he sees in the street, that does not mean he will follow her home and try to ravish her at the first opportunity. And if he sometimes feels the impulse to punch–or even kill–another, that does not necessarily mean he will do so.

Child abuse is a very hot button, though. We love our children so much that the thought of them coming to any harm makes us fearful and angry. And as we all know, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. Love and hate get so confused that ordinary people form vigilante mobs and hunt down sex offenders, ready to lynch them. Is it any wonder, then, that they find themselves driven underground, where their hopes of rehabilitation and support are almost destroyed?

This is wrong. Yes, there is a danger that convicted criminals will re-offend. Yes, there is a danger from paedophiles stalking chat rooms on the Internet. But the media–and even the government, with their latest advertising campaigns–while trying to increase awareness of these dangers, are simultaneously feeding people’s fear. Little is being done to really promote understanding, and a measured response to a complex issue.

It is easy to sit back and say “Love thy neighbour” when the danger is remote, just as it is easy to react harshly when it strikes close to home. This week, someone stole pictures of Alex. While it is still possible that there is an innocent explanation–or at least an explanation that merely involves copyright theft–I cannot bring myself to truly believe that. I think we have had a first-hand brush with Internet paedophiles.

So what do I really feel about it all?

Right now, with the incident only involving photos, I just want it to stop. I don’t want to see the offender behind bars, nor do I want to see them rustled up for psychiatric treatment. I just want them to stop.

If a convicted sex offender moved into our neighbourhood upon release from prison, would I join up with a vigilante gang to hound him out of his home? No. Would I take extra care with Alex? Yes.

But if someone ever actually harmed Alex, I would devote my entire life to hunting them down. I’d like to say that I would just want them to be punished to the full extent of the law. But I don’t know that for sure. I don’t know myself well enough to know what I would really do.

I hope I never find myself in that situation.

If I haven’t already bored you to tears with my thoughts on these matters, I would like to point out an article in the New Yorker by author and lawyer Scott Turow. In it, he describes his experiences while serving on a commission to investigate reforms to Illinois’ system of capital punishment:

“Governor Ryan’s commission didn’t spend much time on philosophical debates, but those who favored capital punishment tended to make one argument again and again: sometimes a crime is so horrible that killing its perpetrator is the only just response. I’ve always thought death-penalty proponents have a point when they say that it denigrates the profound indignity of murder to punish it in the same fashion as other crimes. These days, you can get life in California for your third felony, even if it’s swiping a few videotapes from a Kmart. Does it vindicate our shared values if the most immoral act imaginable, the unjustified killing of another human being, is treated the same way? The issue is not revenge or retribution, exactly, so much as moral order. When everything is said and done, I suspect that this notion of moral proportion–ultimate punishment for ultimate evil–is the reason most Americans continue to support capital punishment.”

In our society, child abuse is right up there with murder in terms of the moral order. Completely different, but both repugnant and highly emotive.