Over the past months, the drip-drip-drip of information from the headquarters of the TJX Companies, just up the road from me – operators of such stores as TJMaxx, HomeGoods, and Marshalls – has focused my attention on the problem of identity theft.
It now appears that in the major security breach that became evident in January, at least 45.7 million credit card and debit card numbers in the company's database were stolen. It's the biggest breach of personal data ever reported (see The Boston Globe, March 29).
The threat is that thieves can use the stolen card numbers and names to make fraudulent purchases or to set up new accounts.
Companies that can't figure out how to protect their customers from identity theft may well go under. And a failure by the consumer finance sector to keep credit purchases safe and reliable would have consequences for the economy as a whole, furthering the damage associated with identity theft.
For the prayerfully engaged citizen, it is well to remember in today's transitional phases of digital banking that not all news is "new." Wisdom has guided us through such transitions before, where developments in the economic system revealed new vulnerabilities, for which solutions had to be found. For instance, in the early days of doing business with checks and other signed documents, forgery was a greatly feared and severely punished crime. Eventually systems were created that protected banks and individuals, and these systems have functioned for decades.
We can also step up prayers in support of appropriate regulatory action and the development of "best practices" within the business community. Even human economic systems are built on qualities that are essentially spiritual: trust and integrity, to name two. An economy shrivels when people fearfully stash their cash underneath mattresses, but it prospers when the security and transparency of its banks and courts inspire confidence.
But more prayer is needed. This latest form of identity theft claims that we are put at risk on a widespread level by the carelessness of a third party – a company that allows sensitive data to be kept on a laptop computer, for instance.
Beyond just taking your money, can a thief somehow steal part of who you are? At the bottom of identity theft lies someone's belief that he or she is missing something as fundamental as a persona, and can get it by depriving another.
The story of Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, is one of the first recorded cases of identity theft (see Genesis 27). Jacob takes advantage of the failing eyesight of their father, Isaac, by disguising himself as Esau and getting Isaac to give him the blessing that should have gone to Esau as the firstborn. The account includes Esau's poignant plea: "Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me ... also." It takes years, but Jacob's willingness to obey God and recognize his higher, God-given identity, contributes to the brothers' peaceful reconciliation.
As God's children, we are so much more than numbers generated by a computer. Science and Health explains, "The divine Mind maintains all identities, from a blade of grass to a star, as distinct and eternal" (p. 70). God has infinite blessings for each of His children. God is the source of those blessings, which can never be taken away or given back by others.
"Wholly apart from this mortal dream, this illusion and delusion of sense, Christian Science comes to reveal man as God's image, His idea, coexistent with Him – God giving all and man having all that God gives" ("The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany," p. 5). This God-given "all" includes a clear, distinct, unassailable spiritual identity for each of us. We are not our credit cards. Who and what we are comes only from God. And because of this, our identity cannot ever be lost or stolen.
First published in the Christian Science Sentinel.