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Let's stop talking about identity

I spent the end of last week sitting in a conference room in Brussels listening to presentations about digital identity and online trust.  Hearing some of the delegate questions, it struck me once again how difficult a topic this is for some people to discuss.

Why? Possibly because of all the philosophical and sociological baggage that comes with the concept of identity. Few other concepts in the payments and online world have such a double meaning. I have to admit that I find some of the jargon that comes with the territory difficult, especially in relation to some of the multiple EU projects in this area concerning cross border digital identity. But for some people it appears really tough to divorce the idea of identifiers from the concept of self-identity.

Vocabulary really doesn’t help here. Digital identity, online identity, online personas and digital identifiers are all different but easily confused.

Nor does the opacity of the online world. Take identity theft. A crook (possibly the mythical internet dog) who gains fraudulent access to your digital identifier is said to steal your online identity. They don’t become you but they do gain access to your online assets or rights and they may even take over one of your online personas. For the other party in the transaction, they might as well be you. On top of that, when you find that your identity has been stolen, many people do feel that something more personal and fundamental than money has been taken. But you haven’t really lost your identity in any real sense.

The problem seems to be the emotional link some people form between identifiers, personas and identity in the philosophical sense. However, for many areas of digital identity, ‘who’ you are really doesn’t matter. ‘What’ you are does.  To access medical records online, it’s more important that you are a ‘medical professional’ than ‘John Smith’. To buy obscure jazz recording downloads online it’s more important that you are ‘bank card holder’ than ‘John Smith’. And it doesn’t really require that the jazz enthusiast is linked to the same fundamental identity as the medical professional. And while Dr John Smith may feel that difficult-to-listen-to jazz is a fundamental part of his self concept, it really doesn’t have any bearing on his access rights to my medical records.

I’d like to say that ‘online identities’ are multiple and various (as I think Sherry Turkle once said) and therefore ‘digital identity’ should not necessarily be monolithic. But even though that's correct (I've recently published a bunch of postgraduate research in that area) for most people that just sounds either tautological or confusing. I almost wish we could ban the use of the word ‘identity’ entirely from the debate and just use ‘ID’, which makes people think of badges and cards. It might make things clearer, especially now that identity is becoming the new money.

However one speaker at the conference shared that it took 6 months just to define terms when developing the Belgian e-ID card. That shows the scale of the problem.

 

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Comments: (1)

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 22 April, 2013, 17:55Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

It seems that even such a "standard" concept as "photo ID" could have different meanings for different companies - http://www.finextra.com/community/FullBlog.aspx?blogid=7616