Besides our social digital identity and consumer digital identity, we must also take into consideration a third aspect of the 1’s and 0’s that are being associated with us – our legal digital identity. While we have a good deal of control over our social digital identity, our consumer digital identity is collected based off on our spending habits – giving us far less control over what our consumer digital identity says about us. But our legal digital identity is something we have almost no control over, because it is information collected about us based on our dealings with the legal system (which is a matter of public record in almost all instances,) or is collected about us without our knowing about it.
Our legal digital identity is what police will make decisions based on. For example, if we are stopped for a broken tail light, the officer may write a citation, or a warning ticket – depending primarily on her own judgment. In either case, though, procedure requires her to check your driver’s license for outstanding warrants. If you have been a victim of criminal identity theft this is usually how you will find out about it, because things quickly escalate from a traffic stop (a relatively minor inconvenience) to an arrest (far more inconvenient on all levels.) If you are not a criminal, this will be due to your legal digital profile containing information about someone else who used your name and/or identification when they were arrested.
For a quick case-study, consider the story of Kevin Foster Wehner, who had his wallet stolen when he was on vacation in the US Virgin Islands. The man who ended up with his wallet, Shawn Labeet, used his ID for several years, buying assault rifles and handguns in Wehner’s name. Labeet also had a warrant out for his arrest for shooting his girlfriend – but whenever police stopped him, he gave Wehner’s driver’s license instead.
Wehner was well aware of the issue, and had gone to the police several times to complain about his stolen identity – especially when he started getting bills for vehicles he had not purchased. Eventually, police took a photograph of Wehner and made a notation that he was a victim of identity theft somewhere. But apparently, it wasn’t somewhere that anyone would pay attention to, because in 2007 Labeet shot and killed a police officer, which caused the local police to launch a manhunt. The picture they gave to the media was the picture Wehner had given them when they finally took his identity theft claim somewhat more seriously.
When he learned he was wanted by the police for the shooting, Wehner immediately called the local police, told them it wasn’t him, again explained that he was a victim of identity theft, and that he hadn’t shot anyone. Police were dispatched to follow up. As you can imagine, it was an intense moment when police arrived, guns drawn, and arrested Wehner in front of his wife and children. Things didn’t turn out as badly as they did for Amadou Diallo in 1999, when four plainclothes police officers mistook him for a man wanted in connection with a recent rape, but the stories run parallel tracks – the biggest difference being that the Diallo murder was mistaken identity based on a physical description, while Wehner’s arrest was based on his legal digital profile.
Legal digital identity are still very much in their infancy. Police and Federal authorities are using every piece of digital identity they can lay hands on to build these profiles – everything from social digital profiles to automatic license plate readers are being used to create a digital profile that can be used to track individuals, model their behavior patterns, and bring them in when they are wanted for questioning or have been associated with a crime, like Kevin Wehner. And while the threat of life-or-death decisions based on legal digital identities being a very real possibility, courts and legislators have been very slow to protect the average consumer.
- An 18-year-old girl met several fine SWAT officers in Evansville, IN, when they assaulted the wrong home based off inaccurate WiFi information related to threats posted online. (Police officially said they “were not all that concerned” about the mix-up.)
- 64-year-old John Adams was killed defending his home against what he thought was a home invasion when police assaulted the wrong home in Lebanon, TN. The mix-up was attributed to a computer error.
- A Great Britain couple had their home raided 41 times in 18 months because their home was incorrectly flagged in a computer system. Fortunately, nobody was injured in these raids, either.
Getting inaccurate information mixed up in your legal digital identity is not always deadly – in fact, quite often it is only an inconvenience. You may only lose your job, or just spend a few weeks in jail. But unlike our other digital identities, life-or-death decisions are placed in the same hands that hold our legal digital profiles, and police officers are still only human. Mistakes will always be made so long as decisions must be made using inaccurate information.
In the coming years, we must hope that laws will come into place that will protect us from these sorts of mistakes – that we might at least have some option to correct inaccurate information in our legal digital identity as we have with our consumer digital identity. However, until that day, it is best to keep in mind that worst-case scenarios can (and sometimes do) turn lethal, and it may be better to take the inconvenience of a false arrest than to stand your ground when facing the next mistaken SWAT team.