Posts Tagged ‘Identity Theft’

‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

October 26, 2020

Last Tuesday, 20th October 2020, the stage magician and sceptic James Randi passed away at the age of 92. Randy was a controversial. After starting out as a stage magician, Randi turned to exposing fake psychics. He was a prominent member of the Sceptics’ organisation CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, along with scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan and the mathematician Martin Gardner. CSICOP’s founders were alarmed at the growth of interest in the occult. Sagan, a Humanist, published his attack on the supernatural in the Demon Haunted World. He seemed to be frightened that we were entering a new Dark Age of superstition, where science and rationality would be forgotten, and in which people would begin their day by poring over their horoscopes.

The I published this obituary of Randi in their weekend edition for 24th-25th October 2020, reprinted from the Washington Post. It runs

James Randi, who has died aged 92, was an internationally acclaimed magician and escape artist who spent much of his career debunking all things paranormal – from spoon bending and water dowsing to spirit channelling and faith healing.

Randall James Ham Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. A child prodigy, he was shy and often lonely. Bored by rote classroom learning, he sought refuge in the library. At a young age, he developed an interest in magic, and at 17 he dropped out of high school, turned down several college scholarships and joined a travelling carnival as junior magician.

He overcame a stammer and fear of speaking in public, affected a turban and goatee, and honed his illusionist skills under a series of stage names, including Zo-Ran, Prince Iblis, Telepath and the Great Randall.

After a stint at faking clairvoyance, in which many took his prophecies seriously – he correctly predicted the winner of baseball’s World Series in 1949, for example – he said he was unable to persuade believerss that his powers were strictly terrestrial. He said he “couldn’t live that kind of lie” and returned to conventional magic as The Amazing Randi.

He also became an escape artist and held Guinness world records for surviving the longest time inside a block of ice (55 minutes) and for being sealed the longest in an underwater coffin (one hour and 44 minutes), breaking a record set by Harry Houdini.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Randi’s many appearances on television made him a fixture of prime time entertainment. In 1973 he toured with heavy metal rock star Alice Cooper as an executioner simulating the beheading of the singer at each performance.

Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable when it was, in fact, the result of simple physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. “The difference between them and me,” Randi told The New York Times in 1981, “is that I admit that I’m a charlatan. They don’t. I don’t have time for things that go bump in the night.”

Randi and the research organisation he helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, offered payouts ranging up to $1m (£77,000) to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. While he had many takers, he said, none of them earned a cent.

In 2010, at the age of 81, Randi publicly announced he was gay. He married a Venezuelan artist, Deyvi Pena in 2013. The following year, film-maker Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein released An Honest Liar, a documentary of Randi’s life.

I first became aware of Randi in the early 1980s, when he appeared in the pages of the Absurder attacking Doris Stokes. Stokes was a medium, who was then in news, much like Derek Acorah and other celebrity psychics a few years ago. Randi showed that much of her comments and remarks when she was supposedly getting in touch with the dead were ‘bunkum statements’. They sounded true and unique to the reader or listener, but they were actually vague and described the way most people felt. Her descriptions of the deceased and the questions she asked her audience were also so vague that they would apply to someone there, who would then become convinced that Stokes was genuinely in contact with a dead friend or relative.

Several times Randi’s own outspoken comment about those he judged to be frauds landed him in legal. In one case, he was sued for libel by a man he claimed was called by the police ‘the shopping mall molester’. Er, not quite. The target of Randi’s wrath had been arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 or 13 year old girl in a shopping centre. But he hadn’t been charged with the offence, as it was dropped due to plea bargaining. And because he hadn’t been charged with it, Randi’s comments were technically libel.

He also got into similar trouble with Uri Geller. He called him a fraud, at which Geller sued him in every country in the world. This resulted in Randi settling out of court with the notorious spoon-bender.

Actually, I think Randi is probably right here. Geller’s most famous trick of bending spoons has been around since at least in the 18th century. It’s mentioned in a book of such amusements from that time, Rational Recreations. Geller was also successfully sued in the 1970s or so by an Israeli engineering student for misleading advertising. Geller’s publicity claimed his act presented overwhelming proof of the paranormal. The student went to see it and wasn’t impressed. He sued, claiming that all he’d seen was standard stage magic. The beak concurred, and judged in his favour.

There was also a scandal a few years ago when it turned out that Randi’s partner was actually an illegal immigrant, who was living in the US under an identity he’d stolen.

Randi was a colourful figure, but I was never a fan of his. While I agree that fake psychics and mediums certainly exist, and should be exposed because of the way they exploit the grieving and vulnerable, I don’t share his dismissal of the supernatural. I think it’s genuine, but that its very nature makes scientific verification extremely difficult, if not impossible. CSICOP also came off as arrogant, smug and vindictive in their attacks on the paranormal and its believers and practitioners. So much so that they were seen as a kind of scientific witch hunt by their victims. A few years ago the organisation changed its name to CSI, which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation. And not Crime Scene Investigation. The name change was not occasioned because there was a cop drama with that acronym as its title playing at the time.

So RIP James Randi. He was a colourful character, who entertained millions, particularly in his bust-up with Geller. Gray Barker, the former Ufologist who began the Men In Black myth with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, took great pleasure in Randi’s antics, calling him ‘the Amusing Randi’. But I leave to the reader to decide for themselves whether the paranormal exists. And not everybody who believes in it deserves sneers and ridicule.

Immigration, ID Cards and the Erosion of British Freedom: Part 2

October 13, 2013

In the first part of this post I discussed the way successive administrations since Mrs Thatcher – those of john Major, Tony Blair, and now, possibly, the coalition, had planned to introduce ID cards. Privacy campaigners such as Simon Davies have opposed them, because of the immense potential they represent for human rights abuses, the mass surveillance of the population, and discrimination against immigrants and minorities. I posted it as a response to Mike’s piece on Vox Political, which I reblogged, on Theresa May’s latest campaign against illegal immigration, and the fears landlords and immigrants’ rights groups have about the terrible effect this will have on them. The landlords in particular were concerned that this would lead to the introduction of 404 European document-style ID cards. In this part of the post I will discuss the dangers ID cards present, and their failure to do what is often claimed for them, such as to prevent crime and illegal immigration.

It looks like illegal immigration will be the platform by which ID cards will be introduced in this country. Mike and a number of other bloggers have commented on the way recent statements and policies by coalition ministers to combat illegal immigration suggest that they plan to introduce ID cards as part of their campaign. Illegal immigration has been the main issue driving their introduction in Europe, America and some developing nations. Davies book on the growth of the surveillance society in Britain notes that as the European Union dissolves borders in Europe, so the police were given greater power to check people’s ID. As for fears that ID cards will somehow stop illegal immigrants from claiming benefits, this has been disproved in Australia. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Australia Card found that of 57,000 people, who overstayed their visa in New South Wales, on 22 were illegally claiming Unemployment Benefit.

Anti-racism campaigners are right to worry that ID will increase discrimination. ID cards carrying information on the bearer’s ethnic groups or religious beliefs have been used to discriminate against minority groups in many countries. The Japanese were accused of racism when they passed legislation forcing all foreigners to carry ID cards. The French police were similarly accused of racism in demanding Blacks and Algerians carry and produce ID cards. This was one of the reasons behind the race riots in France in the 1990s. In Greece, the authorities were also accused of using the religious information on the card to discriminate against those, who were not Greek Orthodox. Down Under, Aboriginal and Jewish Australians joined the campaign against the Australia Card from fear that they would also suffer discrimination. A few thousand miles across the Pacific in New Zealand, Kiwi trade unions and civil liberties groups also feared ID cards would lead to discrimination against minorities and the poor.

Contrary to the frequent claims made by various Right-wing governments like Thatcher’s, Major’s and Blair’s, ID cards don’t actually stop welfare fraud. Says Davies ‘the key area of interest lies in creating a single numbering system which would be used as a basis for employment eligibility, and which would reduce the size of the black market economy’. In Oz, the Department of Social Security stated that much less than 1 per cent of overpaid benefits came from identity fraud. The true figure for such crime is probably 0.6 per cent. Most fraudulent or overpaid benefit claims – 61 per cent – came from the non-reporting of variations in the claimant’s income.

ID cards also don’t stop crime. This is again contrary to the statements made by governments wishing to introducing them. The problem is not the identification of criminals, but in collecting sufficient evidence and successfully prosecuting them. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Britain concluded in 1993 report that burglaries, street crime and crimes committed by people impersonating officials could be reduced through ID cards. They did not, however, present any evidence for this. The Association did fear that the introduction of ID cards would make relations between the police and the general public worse. Davies considered that only a DNA or biometric database could possibly link perpetrators with their crimes.

The introduction of ID cards do, however, increase police powers. Police routinely ask for ID cards in all the countries that have them, and detain those, who don’t possess them. In Britain the wartime ID cards were removed in 1953 after a High Court judge ruled that their routine demand by the police was contrary to the spirit of the National Registration Act, and adversely affected the good relations between police and the public.

In fact, instead of helping to combat crime, ID cards actually help it. ID cards provide a ‘one-stop’ proof of identity, and this can and is used by criminal gangs in their crimes. The technology used to manufacture the cards is now available and used by such organisations. As ordinary organisations, such as companies and the state civil service increasingly rely on ID cards as the unquestioned proof of an individual’s identity, so they abandon the other systems used to check it that they have been using for decades. As a result, crimes using fake identities are actually easier with ID cards.

ID cards are a real danger to the privacy of personal information. About one per cent of the staff of companies involved in collecting the personal information used to construct the relational databases used in such cards are corrupt and prepared to trade confidential information. Each year, one per cent of all bank staff in Europe are dismissed for corruption. This is a minuscule percentage, it is true, but nevertheless it still presents a danger to the privacy and safety of the public. In Britain, computer crime amongst the civil services own ID staff massively increased in the 1980s and 1990s. The National Accounting Office estimated in March 1995 that hacking, theft and infection by viruses were all increasing on the IT network in Whitehall. In one year, for example, hacking rose by 140 per cent and viruses by a massive 300 per cent. Of the 655 cases of hacking in the Whitehall network identified by the NAO, most involved staff exceeding their authority to obtain the personal information of members of the public, which was they then passed on to outside individuals.

ID card schemes also tend to be much more expensive than governments’ estimate and allow for. Once again, Australia provides a good example of this. When introducing the Australia Card scheme, the Ozzie government failed to take into account training costs, and the expenses coming from administrative supervision, staff turnover, holiday and sick leave, as well as compliance, the issue of the cards overseas and fraud. They also underestimated the costs of issuing and maintaining the cards and how expensive they would be to private industry. In the first part of this post I mentioned how leading Australian bankers and financiers, such as Sir Noel Foley, were openly hostile to the scheme. This is not surprising, as the Australian Bankers’ Association estimated that the ID card their would cost Ozzie banks A$100 million over ten years. The total cost of the cards to the private sector was estimated at A$1 billion per year. At the time Davies was writing, the cost of the card system in the UK had not taken into account of administration and compliance costs. These could be as high as £2 – £3 billion. When Tony Blair launched his scheme to develop biometric ID cards, there was further embarrassment to the government when it was revealed by the papers that the scheme had also gone massively over its budget due to problems in developing the technology.

Another factor against the cards is the distress and inconvenience caused to the individual by their accidental loss or destruction. About five per cent of ID cards are either lost, damaged or stolen every year, and it can be several weeks before a replacement is received.

Governments have frequently insisted that ID cards will be voluntary. This was the stance taken by Tony Blair’s government on them. It is misleading. There is a tendency for them to become compulsory. Even in nations where they are voluntary, there is considerable inconvenience if they are not carried, so that they are actually compulsory in practice if not in law.

ID cards also have a tendency to become internal passports as they acquire other uses through function creep. These will include all government and a significant number of important, private functions.

Finally, opponents of ID cards object to them because they feel that they damage national identity and personal integrity. The movements against ID cards in America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand called attention to the fears of ordinary people that the introduction of such cards would reduce them to mere numbers. They were a symbol of oppressive authority, and represented popular anxieties that their countries were ruled, not by elected officials, but by bureaucracies driven by technology.

Actually, reading through all the considerable negative aspects of ID cards and the list of the dangers and damage they represent to society and the safety and privacy of its members, I can see why the Coalition government would see no problem in introducing them. After all, such schemes are inefficient, corrupt and massively expensive. They expand the power of the state and the police at the expense of the individual, and are used to persecute and victimise minorities and the poor. Pretty much like all the Coalition’s policies, then. And ID cards are exactly like IDS welfare schemes and workfare in that, undercover of eliminating welfare fraud, which they actually don’t do anything about, they’re really about controlling the movement of labour.

So, corrupt, authoritarian and discriminatory: just right for Theresa May and the rest of the Coalition then!