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#A DOUBLE EDGED SWORD OF HAVING AN IDENTITY

By Marta Piekarska

It is calculated that about 1.8 billion people which equals to one billion of world’s population is without legal identity. Without it, people are invisible, fly under the radar, and can be easily subject to trafficking, prostitution or abuse. The goal of the summit that proceeds the ID2020 Workshop is to foster a goal conversation, build a working coalition to identify and create circumstances under which legal digital identity can be given to all individuals at risk.

It is important however to first discuss what is identity. Who are we without an ID. Is it obligatory or even needed to have one? Are there situations when having no identity is desired? While with paper documents we can achieve anonymity by leaving them at home, digital identity follows us around wherever we go. Once we get an identity we become identifiable wherever we go. What follows: are there ways to provide temporal anonymity even in the world of digital identity?

What is an identity? In psychology identity or self-concept is not connected to anything physical. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica “it has to do with what the truth of judgments of personal identity consists of and how it can be known. Equivalently, it has to do with the nature of the persistence of persons through time and their awareness of such persistence”. It is liberating: I think therefore I am.

Sticking only to this definition is a double edged sword, however: no one can deny me who I am. The government can deny me my documents not my identity. Identity is something I have as a person. But: from a practical standpoint of view, my cogito may not help the authorities protect my sum. The fact I make judgment, may help me by making a choice not to take up a shady job. It will not l not help police find me when I am kidnapped. Being a document less individual is enough when one does not need anything from the society, when they want to be an Island. We need documents that prove who we are, that prove our Personal Data, when we choose to be part of a society.

Socialization, or becoming a citizen, means that we give up some anonymity (though ideally not privacy!) by providing some personally identifiable information to a trusted institution - like the government - and in return receive a document that guarantees that we are, who we claim we are. The most interesting part of a paper identification is that it is a disposable document. In some countries, like Germany, one is not required to carry around an ID. I leave my house, leave the passport behind and am an island again. Because the government holds a copy of my data, they have methods of identifying me, even if I loose all my paper document. That is a truly double edged sword, again. Once delegating the power to grant me the proof of identity I also agree to delegation of the power to deny that proof. And I need to trust they will not abuse that power.

What is an online identity? How does it differ from the paper document? First and foremost online identity is persistent, non volatile. It is created over time and from every activity on the web. No longer can one choose what is the Personally Identifiable Information that comprises their Identity. What follows is that in order to receive an online identity we need to give up both anonymity AND privacy. Now third party is not necessarily trusted. And it can not only deny me proof of my existence. They can deny me access to my data, or even worse: control and forge my communication. This means that they take control over my identity. They become me, not prove who I am.

Unlike with paper documents, I cannot leave behind my online identity. A double edged sword, again. Privacy is not a possibility any more - I am always connected to who I am. However, we have the right to be private, it is a freedom just like the freedom of speech or religion that should be guaranteed to every person. What I do is my own to reveal as long as I do not hurt other people. An argument often used by the authorities that privacy should not be granted to the individuals, as by giving up privacy we gain security, is not one that should be accepted. We have no control over what is being done with our data, and thus we cannot delegate control over our privacy to a third party.

Finally, most users do not realize that they have only one identity online. Many user IDs mean many personas, right? They create various accounts, log into Facebook or Twitter and don’t have the technical knowledge to understand that their IP address, their browser fingerprint is something that will follow them wherever they go, no matter which user name they use. It is a dangerous game, giving users the sense of fake security and privacy. It is our responsibility to create a world where we understand the challenges of communicating when a person is anonymous and when they are not.

Having an identity is a double edged sword. We need it to be part of society. We need to trust the institutions that grant it or create a system that is a decentralized one to have one. But having an identity means giving up some of our freedom and anonymity. So why do we need it? Because defining what identity is in the digital age also means defining what are the things it is not. What are the boundaries that should never be crossed. I see the following actions that need to be taken as first steps:

  1. Defining what is the minimum set of Personally Identifiable Information as the basis for an online ID.
  2. Defining a protocol that is a consensus that no other information is collected.
  3. Finding means of communication what comprises online ID today - “what internet knows about you”.
  4. Introducing legally acceptable mechanisms to be anonymous online on a wide scale.
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