• United States



Alan De Smet, the Number Cruncher

Feb 01, 20044 mins
Identity Management Solutions

In the early ’90s, Alan De Smet stumbled across a Pascal program that could reconstruct a driver’s license number in his home state of Wisconsin just by knowing a person’s name, birth date and gender. He squirreled away the source code, stumbled across it again years later in college, rewrote the algorithm in Perl and put it on his website. “And people just started contacting me,” he says. Including Debriefing. (But first we tried his program with our mother-in-law, who lives in Dairyland, to make sure it would work. It did.)

De Smet loves to discern the systems behind the numbers that rule our lives. Wisconsin licenses, for example, use a series of numbers that represent soundsan arcane system once used to document immigrants who could say their names but not spell them. In all, De Smet has deciphered the numbering systems for seven states’ licenses, with the goal of documenting all 50 states’ systems (although some, notably New York, now use random numbers). He can also tell you where your Social Security number was issued, and when. And he says he’s working on figuring out the numbering system on passports: “I hear there’s a document which will tell me all about it. I just have to get my hands on it,” he says.

CSO: Have the authorities ever contacted you about your website?

Alan De Smet: Actually, you’re the first to ever call. I’ve gotten e-mail but not from anyone who claims to be an authority. Even those who e-mail me aren’t angry. They just say, “Have you thought about the implications of this?”

CSO: Our question exactly.

Alan De Smet: Yes, I have. I guess, in my zest for this hobby, I gloss over some of the ramifications. I have a certain egotism. I am the first hit for “driver’s license number” on Google. If there’s someone out there with authority to crack down on this, I can’t believe they wouldn’t have already. But it has forced me to step back and think about it. I don’t yet feel like it’s a problem.

CSO: A problem? You work at the University of Wisconsin, Debriefing’s alma mater. There are 10,000 thirsty freshman and sophomores who’d pay you for this program. You’re sitting on a gold mine!

Alan De Smet: The information I provide makes it a little easier to create a good fake ID, but most people who get fake IDs just use someone else’s legitimate ID. As for the knowledge itself, much of it I just searched for online. Some is right there. Some is in less reputable parts of the Web. There is, in fact, a newsgroup dedicated to fake IDs.

CSO: What other number sequences could we crack for profit?

Alan De Smet: Vehicle ID numbers have an encoding system. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that every car manufacturer seems to have its own system.

CSO: Your site includes disclaimers like, “You could use this information to create fake identification. That is fraud. It could get you thrown in jail. That would suck. I suggest you don’t do it”; and “The information I provide may be wrong. My wrong information may get you busted. Relying on this information to commit a crime is dumb.” We think these disclaimers need to be more straightforward.

Alan De Smet: I was thinking of updating the warnings with something like, “Before misusing information from this site, remember that the CIA and FBI are watching everything you do thanks to the Patriot Act.” But I figure that’s just a given these days.

CSO: Do your friends make fun of your hobby?

Alan De Smet: No. They’re geeks like me. They’re amused. More and more, we are identified by numbers. I don’t necessarily think this is bad. But I think people should have a certain amount of curiosity about what those numbers say about them.

CSO: Seriously, you generate the IDs. We’ll market and distribute them to underclassmen. Whaddya say?

Alan De Smet: I just find the number systems interesting. The payoff for abusing them doesn’t seem that good. I’m not rich, but I do well as a programmer. A life of crime doesn’t appeal to me at this time. [Laughs.]