Whose Identity is it Anyway?

I was at the cinema recently and saw a preview for Liam Neeson’s new film ‘Unknown’.  Predictably, to me at least, it seems that Mr. Neeson plays one of his two stock roles; arch-nemesis or, as is in this case, driven character either in a situation of peril or jeopardy or seeking a close relative in such state.  His character in this film apparently wakes from a coma to find that someone else has stolen his identity and not even his wife believes him.

Like the plot for this film, identity as an issue seems to crop up every couple of years.  Like the critics’ opinions on Mr. Neeson’s latest adventure, there’s a mixture of responses as to what the answer to the tricky issue of identity and identity theft ‘should’ be.

What is clear is that there are a number of commercial and large-scale projects ongoing around the world that are trying to address this in a concerted fashion; far more concerted it has to be said than in previous years.  What is interesting is looking at why this is happening and what people feel about this.  There’s no doubt that with the increase in life online, there’s a battle for ownership of identity.

Money Never Sleeps?

Like all consumer technology advances these days, two of the main drivers in the consumer space when it comes to identity seem to be from Facebook and Apple.  Did you miss those?  You may well have done.  Recently, Apple godfather Steve Jobs announced in the iPad 2 launch event that there were now something in the region of 200 million credit cards stored in the iTunes/App Store.  A financial link to a user is obviously an incredibly powerful way of validating who that person is (unless the card is stolen, in which case, that identity will either be short-lived or the person using it to purchase goods or services will soon be relocating to a secure facility).  Given the fact that less than 25% of people alive today have a bank account, this isn’t necessarily the best way of validating identity.

At the same time, in late February, Facebook rolled out Facebook Comments.  Billed as an attempt to enable sites to clean up their comment spam, those wishing to comment on an article with Facebook Comments enabled now have to sign in either using Facebook Connect or Yahoo! ID.  This obviously impacts on whether or not you’d wish to associate yourself with a comment on the site.  With over 550 million users, one would think that this identity provision would scale.  Facebook is obviously keen for people to be who they say they are, as advertising revenue increasingly funds its growth and success and the value behind that is the real-life data gathered in the biggest Truman Show experiment ever.

Both of these models seem based on the individual as a consumer and the value of that consumer to the ecosystem around the devices (in Apple’s case) or the platform (in Facebook’s case).  The first is tapping in to the cash that can be directly extracted from the consumer through providing very simple one-click verification of a transaction, however small.  The second is tapping into the value around the transactions – both financial and interaction-based – that the consumer undertakes and how that impacts on their friends, family and associates.


Whilst not describing themselves as identity solutions, the implicit aspect is that this is what they are intended to be.  But these systems are built on transactions – What do I buy? What am I commenting on? – inside their own ecosphere.  This isn’t useful outside of that particular walled garden – there’s no personal continuity presented; how someone acts and the persona they are on Facebook may be completely different from whom they are at work.  Indeed, again, people are modifying their behavior when it comes to commenting using Facebook Comments.

Both solutions seem to be changing habits and activity (buying more things, commenting less) online, rather than driving understanding of what people actually need to do (have control over my credit card spending, making an anonymous snarky comment about something to let off steam right now).  This is forcing change on people through a technology service dependent on the moral structure of the service provider.  Many people feel fine about this; they live their lives in public and don’t understand why people might not wish to do the same as a default.  Even reading articles about being stalked on FourSquare don’t seem to deter them.  The problem is that when choice seems to be taken out of the equation as controls get more and more confusing for normal people, the default setting of privacy becomes ‘off’ because it’s too hard to set to ‘on’ and there’s an assumption that if something happens, it will be resolved by the service provider.

Cue the Sun!

In a time when the US government is seeking to encourage people to have a unique online identity in order to interact with Government services online, and having recently sat down with both Jobs and Zuckerberg at lunch, the drive towards online identity is front of mind for Governments.  It’s not just the United States.

The question is, will the systems that are chosen (driven by commercial organizations) inevitably change the individual?  Will we all, like Liam Neeson, wake up one day from a coma to find out that our identity has been taken away from us?  Not by another individual, but by a system that has been introduced as ‘best fit’, that changes who we are by changing what we do because of the lack of flexibility and individual control that we have being represented by that identity system?

Let’s hope there’s enough time to think this through.  I may just have to go and see Unknown now to see how Hollywood has it ending.  I’m certainly hoping it’s more Truman Show than Brazil.

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