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Who was I?


Identity theft has been a problem for years and seems to be getting worse. Every phone call and email must be mistrusted as a possible threat. It’s enough to make a person paranoid, if we weren’t already paranoid about everything else. At home, we’ve started shredding documents as busily as if we were living in the White House.

Identity theft is not at the top of my list of worries. In the literal sense, it is impossible, and certainly inadvisable. Anyone foolish enough to steal my identity, for example, would probably be knocking on the door the next morning asking to give it back. The true threat is identity imitation, which is quite a different matter.

Today’s sophisticated thieves can use computers to take any scrap of information about any of us — such as our Social Security number or golf handicap — to discover all the rest of our personal details and fabricate a complete parallel identity. Using this doppelganger, they can dip into our bank accounts, discover our e-mail secrets, and buy all sorts of things we wouldn’t think of buying ourselves. Unfortunately, they don’t follow through and live the other half of our lives. They don’t pay the bills, for example, cut the lawn, or feed the cats.

In other words, this ominous thing called identity theft is what used to be simply fraud and has been around forever. Charles Dickens’ father routinely stole his son’s identity to make money out of it. Identity theft sounds deeply sinister, like those old science fiction movies where aliens take over people’s minds and bodies. But it’s just another way of stealing money.

Inevitably we have become security conscious. We have so many passwords that we might as well be living in a spy movie. Even these are not enough. We are required to remember bizarre facts like our mother’s maiden name, to guarantee that we are who we are, and that our money, and therefore our identity, belongs to us.

What really stirs the imagination is the idea of identity theft in the full and literal sense. Not just sordid petty theft but the fantasy of actually becoming someone else, like those adolescents who dream about changing sex. Novelists can do this without the surgery, which is why novels are still so popular. On paper anyone can be anyone, and readers can share the fun. I’m sure that many of us would like to claim a new name and a new biography, like a person in the Federal Witness Protection Program, to abandon unanswered e-mails and the uncut lawn and start a new life.

Who would I like to be? Not a living person — he or she might complain. But the dead never complain. I would like to steal (or at least borrow) Michel de Montaigne's identity. He lived a peaceful life in a chateau near Bordeaux in 16th-century France, with many cats but without a computer. He was one of the most humane and engaging philosophers who ever lived, and one of the finest essayists. If radio had been invented in his time he would certainly have been on NPR. Nobody could have stolen his identity because he was unique. That’s who I’d like to be.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.