It's not difficult to predict the future.
Just scan today's headlines and extend the trends: climate change, energy depletion, terrorist threats, government surveillance, ethnic strife, weapons proliferation, genetic engineering, corporate ethics and so on.
Yet on an individual level, there's an issue that's perhaps even more disturbing: identity theft.
In an era of security paranoia, every aspect of our lives will be recorded: from DNA to IQ; from official documentation to private finance; from medical history to psychological profile.
When that information is hacked or erased, it will be the innocent victim with no credentials who'll be labeled a security risk.
THE YEAR IS 2184, it’s late afternoon and a young man is trying to evade capture by riding a pinto mare across a verdant spring landscape. At first glance, there’s not much about him that would attract attention. He’s of average height and weight, with a crop of mousy hair and an everyman face that he tries to enhance with the fashionable chin stubble of an urban professional. He’s also surprisingly robust for someone with a biotech heart replacement; but even that’s not unusual, at least for those with sufficient means. In fact, everything about him is normal, except for one thing. His identity has been stolen. He’s no longer a functioning citizen and that makes him a fugitive.
It happened a few minutes before midday, just as he was finishing up a design project at his father’s lakeside estate and thinking about lunch. His application quit, the screen dissolved to a midscale gray and the ubiquitous phrase appeared:
A MESSAGE FROM THE GOVERNMENT
It’s a standard announcement, used for no end of mundane purposes, so he thought little of it until he clicked on the link and found a polite, official statement suggesting that he might find it expedient to report to his federal administration office as soon as possible. That’s when the palpitations began, an involuntary reaction that soon developed into a clammy sweat, making his scalp itch and his underarms moist. He knew, as any informed citizen knows, that a posting like that is not designed as a request and the stated course of action is not meant to be discretionary. On the contrary, deliberate non compliance can carry penalties.
The notion of escaping out here in the mountains came to him in the primacy of desperation. He’s more than aware that the decision to run was an impulsive attempt to avoid the inevitable but he only had a few fleeting moments to think bout it and a certain sense of stubborn arrogance took hold. It’s one of the few traits he inherited from his overacheiving father. He told himself he’d be damned if he was going to relinquish his existence without a struggle and, from that point on, it was no longer a question of whether he would try to avoid arrest but how.
Of all the options he could come up with, the best seemed to involve exchanging his shiny vehicle in favor of a more natural kind of hybrid: a homebred mount from his father’s stable. It was an idea he retained from one of those endless nature specials, this particular one showing how the hill tribes of the BurmaLaos triangle still use elephants instead of trucks to smuggle jade in order to avoid radar detection. It made sense to him. If it works with an elephant, he reasoned, it should work with a horse. More importantly, it gave him a course of action on which to focus, a clear direction to calm the confusing mental chaos of that initial panic. Unfortunately, his plan had a serious flaw. Security technology is not the same across all parts of the globe and the terrain of southeast Asia is not yet covered by the kind of satellite based bioscan sensors that exist here on the North American continent. As a result, even now, even out in these open spaces, both horse and rider are being vectored onto the central system grid.
The young man glances at his watch and makes a reluctant decision to rein in. The mare is a genetically enhanced quarter horse, strong and eager like the rest of the pampered string, but he’s been pushing her hard and there’s no point testing her limits. She snorts and shakes her head as she slows to an easy canter and that’s when the full weight of the irony strikes him. Since the central database no longer has any record of his identity, it effectively means that the horse currently has more legitimacy than he does himself. She has a multi-generational breeding history on file at the stable, whereas he, the privileged scion of an affluent family, seems to have had his entire life erased as if it never existed. There’s nothing left: not a file, not a record, not a trace. Suddenly, all status has been denied. He’s become a “loser,” street shorthand for the legal term, “Subject of Lost Identity”, which means he now exists in official limbo. Given the continuous threat of terrorism, such people immediately become suspect by definition, so normal procedure is to consign them to electronic restriction and, for want of anything better, to employ them within supervised federal projects until such time as their identities can be restored.
That’s the theory, anyway, but the system is far from perfect and, in practice, this supposedly temporary period can extend indefinitely, either with assignment to a sanitation crew or, more often these days, to one of the recycling plants. Originally, of course, the much touted DNA registry was meant to prevent these lost identity problems from ever happening but the supposedly unbreakable organic code eventually gave way to hackers, just like every other system, and the entire program was compromised. For a society paranoid about its own security, this represented an untenable situation: hundreds of people suddenly cut off from the grid, unidentified and unrecognized. Committees were formed, subpoenas were issued and hard questions were asked. Finally, under the glare of media and the growing pressure of public opinion, revised laws were hurriedly drafted and rammed through on a bipartisan basis, resulting in the current situation. In all fairness, the framework was designed with the best of intentions but, as so often happens, the elaborate legal niceties were subverted by everyday reality. In practice, the complex process of reestablishing a lost identity can take years, which means that victims are left in an indefinite state of suspicion. Meanwhile, their financial resources have vanished into the ether, their signatures have been rendered obsolete, their records are meaningless and whatever academic or professional accomplishments they may have achieved have been totally wiped from every medium except memory.