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Counting the numbers
Media General News Service


July 17, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The great author E.B. White once wrote a short essay called "About Myself" in which he described himself mostly by numbers.

"I am a man of medium height," he began. "I keep my records in a Weis Folder Re-order number 8003 ... My Selective Service order number is 10789. The serial number is T1654. I am in Class IV-A, and have been variously in Class 3-A, Class I-A(H), and Class 4-H."

This was 1945, BIT - Before Identity Theft.

White, an essayist for The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine whose children's classic "Stuart Little" was published that year, never imagined that anyone would use his numbers to steal his identity.

In White's day, being known by numbers seemed dehumanizing. Today, our numbers seem as intimate as our fingerprints. We buy shredders to obliterate papers with the very numbers White put out for all to see:

"My social security number is 067-01-9841. I am married to US Woman Number 067-01-9807."

Social Security was still a novelty in 1945 - the first numbers were issued in 1936.

Neither of his parents had a Social Security number, White wrote, and "neither was secure socially. They drove to the depot behind an unnumbered horse."

In our computer-driven era, nearly every day brings news that sensitive personal information has been compromised. The government is a sieve with our data, and banks and companies aren't much better.

Here's White: "My operator's licence is Number 16200. It expired December 31, 1943, more than a year ago, but I am still carrying it and it appears to be serving the purpose. I shall renew it when I get time ... The number of my car is 18-388."

Fast forward six decades. Before they'll rent me a movie, the people at the movie rental store want my address, my credit card number and my birth date. The month and day aren't enough. They want the year of my birth. I just want to watch a movie.

I surrender everything but the birth date without a fight.

I'm over 21, I say, smiling, old enough to watch anything on the shelves. But video corruption of the morals of the young is not the issue. The clerk explains that they need to be able to track me down if I don't pay. Knowing my birth date will help with their investigation.

Oh, then you definitely don't need it, I assure him. I'm going to pay.

And so begins the standoff. Behind me forms a line of people who confessed their birth dates long ago.

The manager appears. Joe tells me that I need to give a birth date - any birth date. I give a preposterous date. Sounds good to me, Joe says.

I rent a movie, but I can't shake the sense that the Big Brother video store is watching me. I switch to renting movies by mail. They don't ask my birth date.

White says: "I was born in District Number 5903, New York State. My birth is registered in Volume 3/58 of the Department of Health. My father was a man of medium height. His telephone number was 484."

In the discount clothing store, they want my zip code. Why? I'm paying cash. I'd rather not, I say. The beleaguered sales clerk softly tells me that if I refuse to give up my zip code, she will lose her job. I ask for the manager. He's not there. I get his phone number and call later to beg that she not be fired.

Preserving privacy is exhausting - and perhaps impossible.

A survey by Javelin Strategy and Research and the Better Business Bureau found that 9 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2005.

While the news focuses on the potential for identity theft online, most thieves got personal data in old-fashioned ways. Lost or stolen wallets, light-fingered family members and friends, and theft of paper mail were the most common ways thieves gained the information, according to the Javelin-Better Business Bureau survey.

E.B. White concluded his essay with this: "In 1918 I was a private in the Army. My number was 4,345,016. I was a boy of medium height. I had light hair ... The number of that war was Number One."

He didn't need a shredder.


E-mail Marsha Mercer, Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service, at mmercer(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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