Blue Line


December 3, 2012  By Michael Kelly

948 words – MR ___TIED TO EXPO

What’s in a name?

by Michael Kelly

Most of what you believe about identity and identification is wrong.


Our birth is registered with the government, we are assigned a name and that is how we are known for the rest of our days. We believe that in order for a person to exist, they must first be born.

This is untrue.

Recently we’ve seen an emerging trend of identities fabricated out of thin air; such creations are often referred to as “synthetic identities.” Don’t confuse them with identity theft, where someone pretends to be another person (living or dead), or counterfeit identification, where a government document is forged.

In its simplest form, a synthetic identity is a fictional name supported by valid government ID. In most cases, the combination of systemic weakness and employee corruption allows the new identity to appear and take hold.

For example, I may decide I no longer wish to be known as Mike Kelly when a series of arrest warrants diminishes my pleasure in being myself. I decide that, from now on, my name will be Server Froze and I choose a birth date that makes me two years younger and allows me to celebrate my birthday in the summer.

I pay off a corruptible employee to get my hands on valid, properly-issued government identification in my false name; there is nothing stopping me from using it to get other forms of ID and financial instruments identifying me as Server Froze.

Shortly thereafter I am pulled over for speeding. I present Server Froze’s driver’s license to the officer. He asks for more information so I hand over bank, health and credit cards – all in the name “Server FROZE.” The diligent officer checks each, determining they are all properly issued and that my face matches the face associated with that name. Server Froze has never had been arrested or had any contact with the police so the officer sends me on my way, unaware.

In truth, he never had a chance.

Like most western democracies, Canada has few defences when someone establishes apparent legitimacy and proper identification inside our borders. To use an analogy, Canada is like a nightclub. Patrons present identification and are searched upon entry, but once inside they can move freely.

In the case of synthetic identities, they simply enter through a side door, unsearched and unchecked. Once inside there is no way to distinguish legitimate from synthetic identities because the presumption is that all individuals have been challenged upon entering. It is only when something goes wrong and steps are retraced that the problematic circumstances become apparent.

Think of all the things you could do if the only name at the end of a lengthy investigation into your activities was Server Froze, a figment of your own fertile imagination.

Think what you could accomplish with an army of fabricated people who exist only on paper: fictitious people to ship your drugs, launder your money, pay for and register the car you drive and verify the picture for your passport application.

Imagine having the ability to use your army of paper people to defraud the public and companies of millions of dollars, all in a matter of hours.

You may never have entertained these thoughts but organized crime groups did years ago and now actively exploiting the canyon-like gaps in our systems. Nearly every one will ultimately trend to what is profitable and this is no exception. Not only do synthetic identities provide increased opportunities to generate revenue, they also offer the ability to conduct illegal activities with little personal risk to the offender.

The risk goes far beyond profits for organized criminal groups.

A significant component of police officer safety is the availability of accurate and reliable information: Who am I dealing with? Criminal history? Infectious diseases? Warrants? Synthetic identities put frontline personnel at risk because they have no way to know that the person they’re talking to is not who they appear to be.

This problem has been allowed to develop largely because it is not the territory of any one entity or group. Lack of understanding the existence and magnitude of the problem has prevented stakeholders from identifying and meaningfully protecting our interwoven common interests; rather, the focus has been on protecting the interests of each of our respective organizations.

For example, the intended purpose of a driver’s license is to authorize a person to drive. The license wasn’t created to provide a means of determining identity so the issuer cannot be required to account for possibilities which go beyond the holder’s ability to drive a motor vehicle.

Although the previous statement may be true in the purely bureaucratic sense, ask yourself which form of identification most people use when opening a bank account, checking into a hotel, applying for a loan or signing for a package? Ironically, a driver’s license is also the most common form of identification used to obtain a passport – which IS an identity document!

At the end of the day banks, government agencies and law enforcement all have skin in this game. Each relies upon the trustworthiness of valid documentation with a person’s name on it. Like it or not, our individual fates are tied together.

Tens of thousands of synthetic identities in Canada are supported by government identification. Server Froze is one of them.

The longer we fail to work in the collective interest, the worse it becomes.

Michael Kelly and Timothy Trotter explore the dangerous and shadowy world of synthetic identities at Blue Line EXPO in their course “Economic crimes: Detection and investigation – Project Mouse and Project Kite,” brought to you by Vancouver Island University.

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