ID theft, the sequel

Harrison Ford is ticked off again. But not because the bad guys have hijacked Air Force One or kidnapped his wife from a Paris hotel room; this time they've swiped his identity to break into the bank where he works and steal millions of dollars.

Warner Bros Pictures on February 10 will release "Firewall", the latest film to focus on an issue that over the past year has come front and centre in the public's consciousness - identity theft. Playing on everyone's fear of having a credit card number stolen, Firewall takes it to the extreme, pitting good corporate citizen Jack Stanfield (Ford) against a technology-laden thief with a British accent, and forcing Stanfield to take near superhero measures to save his security executive job as well as his family, who are taken hostage.

Identity theft doesn't seem as sexy a topic as the espionage and adultery that Hollywood tends to churn out, but there does seem to be an ongoing flirtation between big movie companies and technology.

"Every once in a while you'll see a movie that tries to talk about the state of the art of technology and point out the flaws," says Todd Dagres, general partner with Spark Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in companies that combine technology and entertainment, as well as the founder of two film and TV production companies. "Hollywood loves the downside - 'You think you're protected, but you're not' - and how technology can turn against you."

Yet Dagres points out that Warner Bros Pictures must have realized the storyline alone might not be enough draw for the average moviegoer. "You've got to have Harrison Ford in there running frantically around and turning the tables on the bad guys" to pack the theatres, he says.

Though Firewall is being released when news headlines about identity theft abound, it's not the first to focus on the issue. Perhaps its most notable predecessor was the 1995 release, The Net, in which Sandra Bullock plays a software engineer whose identity was deleted and replaced by one attached to a criminal record.

Using a computer to erase someone's existence was so farfetched in 1995 it seemed like something that could happen only in a movie, but that's perhaps not so today.

"I do think it's appropriate for people to be concerned about identity theft, therefore it's not surprising that it has become a topic of interest," says Laura Yecies, a general manager at firewall maker Check Point. "One of our biggest efforts has been to really educate consumers about the importance of taking seriously the security of the Internet and their computers."

It's also nice for Check Point that Hollywood named a mainstream movie after a highly technical product that the company is closely associated with. "We think it's kind of cool that this thing we work on day-to-day is really relevant to everyday people," Yecies says.

Check Point is planning company outings to see the movie and will host some sessions analyzing the film to separate the technically possible from the Hollywood hype. "We've come up with some cute ideas" of ways the company can have fun with the film, she says.

Symantec liked the idea of being associated with Firewall so much that it became a marketing partner with Warner Bros for the film.

This is the second partnership Symantec has struck with Warner Bros. regarding a movie, though Firewall appears to have more in common with Symantec's business than did the first film, Batman Begins.

"What we liked about [Firewall] is the main character really uses his expertise in security and his smarts to defend the bank from the bad guys," says Linda Knox, marketing program manager with Symantec.

Despite all the raised awareness that security companies hope this film creates, it may be making a mountain out of a relative molehill. According to a January 2005 report by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research - a report that the Federal Trade Commission points to as the most up-to-date source on identity theft - the crime is on the decline; there were 9.3 million victims reported in 2004, down from 10.1 million in 2003.

Online identity theft isn't as big of a threat as headlines - and headliners - would make it seem, the report says. In 2004, computer-related identity crimes accounted for only 11.6 percent of all reported identity theft; the most frequent method was via a stolen chequebook or wallet. And in those cases in which authorities found the perpetrator, half the time it was someone the victim knew.

But try telling that to Jack Stanfield.

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