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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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Identifying Bodies, Not People

Absolute identification is a seductive idea. Unfortunately, it's an idea that is fundamentally flawed. All of the identification techniques discussed in this chapter share a common flaw: the techniques do not identify people, they identify bodies. In modern society, people are legal entities. People have names, Social Security numbers, and histories. People buy and sell property. People have obligations. Bodies, on the other hand, are the warm-blooded, two-legged animals that are walking around on our planet's surface. Bodies are born, and bodies die.

When a murder is committed in our society, one body has taken the life of another body. It is then the job of the police to determine the people involved—that is, identifying the victim and finding the perpetrator. Bodies are imprisoned, but people go to jail. Any identification databank, whether it's the passports issued by the U.S. State Department or the FBI's CODIS system, attempts to draw lines connecting legal people with the bodies that they inhabit. This is an imperfect exercise.

Today, it is remarkably easy for a criminal to adopt an assumed name and construct an alias, complete with a state-issued driver's license. Many underground and semi-underground tracts give precise directions on how to create a fraudulent identity: first, search public records and find somebody who was born at roughly the same time and died in early childhood. Next, request a duplicate birth certificate and Social Security ...

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