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Me, Myself, and My Digital Double: Extending Sara Greene’s Stealing (Identity) From the Poor to the Challenges of Identity Verification

By Michele Estrin Gilman. Full Text.

Identity is an essential part of the human condition. When one’s identity is stolen or when a state rejects a citizen’s identity, the consequences can be devastating to one’s notion of selfhood as well as undermine their economic security. In Stealing (Identity) from the Poor, Sara Greene explores the serious harms suffered by low-income people who are victimized by identity theft. She explains that our plutocratic regime of identity theft laws serves the interests of wealthier Americans at the expense of those experiencing poverty.

This Essay extends Greene’s analysis and framing to the harms of identity verification systems, particularly in unemployment insurance (UI) programs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, UI programs faced massive demands as people lost work, and criminal syndicates fraudulently claimed billions of dollars in benefits. In response, states hastily adopted automated identity verification systems that ended up denying benefits to millions of needy and eligible workers. These systems failed along three dimensions. First, they were designed with privileged users in mind, thus leaving vulnerable people in the digital divide unable to navigate their requirements. Second, identity verification determinations were implemented without adequate due process or clear standards. Third, the privatization of identity verification systems limited transparency and accountability to citizens. This Essay explores the challenges of identity verification in our automated age and suggests several paths forward for more equitable systems.