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Commentary

The Perfect Going-Away Gift From 2005: More Consumer Data Breaches

Any doubt that 2005 would be known as the unofficial Year of Lost Consumer Data was swept away in the past week by news of two data compromises that cast a pall over the holidays. First, acting on a tip from a reader, InformationWeek's Larry Greenemeier verified that the Department of Justice, the very agency charged with combating identity theft, had inadvertently exposed on its Web site social security numbers
Any doubt that 2005 would be known as the unofficial Year of Lost Consumer Data was swept away in the past week by news of two data compromises that cast a pall over the holidays. First, acting on a tip from a reader, InformationWeek's Larry Greenemeier verified that the Department of Justice, the very agency charged with combating identity theft, had inadvertently exposed on its Web site social security numbers of people involved in DOJ-related cases. Then, a week later, Marriott Corp.'s vacation timeshare unit, Marriott Vacation Club International, revealed that it had lost backup tapes containing personal data on 206,000 employees, timeshare owners and timeshare rental customers. The reinforced message to consumers is this: You are absolutely helpless.Throughout 2005, consumers have learned time and time again that they can't trust anyone to adequately safeguard their privacy. Not the retailers they do business with. Not the clearing houses charged with storing their credit histories. Not the universities where they earn degrees. Not the banks they entrust with their life savings. Not even a federal law-enforcement agency.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: These breaches will keep happening, no matter how many great minds are put to the task of preventing them. Why? Because there are just as many great minds--albeit twisted great minds--that are hell-bent on getting to the data. Just as sure as Americans will get drunk in large numbers on New Year's Eve, some household name will find itself in the news in January for losing or just not adequately protecting sensitive customer data. That you can bet on.

But there are things consumers can do to prevent their exposure to such incidents from growing. For starters, they can stop signing up for every loyalty program under the sun, a move that would not only reduce their chances of falling victim to identity theft, but would also free up some space in their over-crowded wallets. They can stop buying stuff online. They can stop using credit cards for every purchase and live within their means by relying solely on cash. And they can stop allowing themselves to be duped by the growing legions of phishers who are out to trick them into willingly handing over the keys to their financial resources with the aid of nothing more than a deceptive E-mail.

Granted, given how far we've traveled down the road to the Internet Age, this is all about as likely as Shakespeare nudging Britney Spears off those lists of the year's most popular search terms. Most of us have become habituated to using the Web to buy stuff and pay bills. We've grown accustomed to providing personal information in exchange for a loyalty card that will get us half off our next case of soda. And we've gotten really comfortable with the idea that we don't have to carry cash if we've got our Visa check card with us. But such convenience comes with a price. The question I keep coming back to is, when will we all wake up and decide that price is too high?

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