The whole NSA thing, and the ensuing privacy discussion that keeps not happening around it, has me feeling like posting the story of The Time They Got The Wrong Guy. So, here you go:

Seven years ago, for my first post-collegiate job, I had to fill out a waiver for a background check. It noted that although they asked for my SSN, they would not use it. I was young and dumb and desperate for money and had absolutely no other offers on the table, so I put it in.

On my 2nd or maybe 3rd day at work, The Boss came and told me he needed to see me and led me into a conference room with the mammoth who ran Corporate Security. He said there were a few questions about my background check, handed me a clipboard with some printouts on it, and asked me to look it over for accuracy. All the normal information – name, street address, driver’s license number, etc. – was correct. The name was even correct (mostly – his middle initial was different). But two things were wrong: the SSN, and the twelve pages of arrest records. These were pretty detailed records, too, down to how Robust’s Evil Twin shouldn’t be allowed near witnesses to his crimes because he had threatened to injure/kill anyone who might testify against him, all sorts of fun things.

They thought it was me.

Long story short, I get a few days of “free vacation,” they called it. While CorpSec guy – who looked like a linebacker and talked like he always got picked last – was explaining that they would need to see copies of my Social Security Card, my birth certificate and my passport – like, go home right now and get as many of those as you have on hand and bring them right back, we’ll be here waiting – The Boss ran around and told everyone that (a) he was about to change all the passwords to everything because (b) it turned out I was secretly an axe murderer.

Remember the part about being young and dumb and poor and desperate? Yeah, it never occurred to me to sue. Instead I worked there for a year before moving on to greener pastures, and later The SubBoss told me they had spent that entire year fretting that I would sue the company dry. I should have, too. Turned out the company that did their background checks mistyped my SSN when they ran their search and it was the only criteria they used to identify me after stating they wouldn’t use it at all. My boss got a letter of apology. I got nothing but suspicious stares for my first six months there.

Moral: your SSN is tied to so much information about you that a lot of people lazily think it is a shortcut to absolute profile of you. As such, it is very, very easy to misidentify someone in the labyrinthine system used to track people’s personal data in our society. It doesn’t just matter that the government be selective in its monitoring for the basic human liberty of privacy, it also matters for accuracy. Cast a wide enough net and something inaccurate or downright false is liable to end up in someone’s profile. The more data gathered, the more opportunities there are for error. This isn’t just a privacy issue in the sense of a noble, but ultimately abstract, quest to uphold civil liberties. This is an accuracy issue in how we are recorded and represented in society, with potential real impacts on our day-to-day lives.

Likewise, it matters that not too much data about us be tied to, or extrapolated from, any one way of identifying us – not just for the sake of privacy as an ideal, but for simple accuracy. When 867-5309 calls OBL for today’s codes, what do you think happens to the little old lady at 867-5306 when the agent misreads the dialing phone # and goes around to have a chat?

Trust me. Every time I’ve had to do a background check for a job (and I’ve had to do so several times), I’ve had to open with: “By the way, there’s someone out there named Robust E. McManlyPants, not Robust N. McManlyPants, and he’s got an arrest record a mile long and his SSN is almost identical to mine and he was born about twenty miles away from where I was in the same week. The mistake has been made before, and I want to bring it up now so that if it’s made again I don’t look like the kid who claims the dog ate his felonies.”