Are you sure that you are actually you?

by Jorge del Prado

There was a popular Spanish philosopher and writer, Ortega y Gasset, that used to say “Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias” (I am myself and my circumstances). The concept of being yourself or, in other words, the concept of identity is pretty recent actually, we wouldn’t expect our ancestors in the Palaeolithic spending too much time thinking on their identity or trying to prove it.

Identity has 2 definitions in Collins dictionary:

1.              Your identity is who you are

2.              The identity of a person or place is the characteristics they have that distinguish them from others

I challenge the first definition as you could change your identity (after testifying in a serious crime as a witness) and you would still be you.

The second one is more accurate. ‘Characteristics’, or ‘attributes’ that ‘distinguish’ an individual is how we codify identity.

The awareness of the importance and value of identity has quite developed relatively recently. Before trusted authorities and operational processes matured, social media and digital profiles existed - a person could easily move around changing their identity along the way, to suit their needs.  It was almost impossible to prove they were not who they claimed to be.

The concept of the ‘passport’, an official document issued by a government, certifying the holder's identity and citizenship, is claimed to have started by Henry the V. By the following century, more sovereign nations were onboard implementing various methods and credentials to control their population, movement and migration.

The process itself was, and still is, based on someone whose identity is already officially certified, vouching for the applicant that their identity is verifiably true.  This happens still today when a father or mother registers a new-born in a local community. Depending on the country, the requirements for this are quite minimal, usually based on a doctor (a trusted authority) documenting the child’s birth in a hospital and a parent asserting that that child is theirs (jokes aside about paternity proof, I can cover that in another post).

The ways to document an identity - a certified token containing the distinguishing attributes have been and still are, in most cases, quite rudimentary:

•               A paper document for a birth certificate

•               A physical booklet with a photo and perhaps an EMV readable chip for passports

•               A plastic card with a photo for id cards like a driving license

•               A plastic card with a name and a number for memberships

At the very instant that authentication is executed, the proof of identity is always based on some level of probability:

 •               You look like the photo printed in a physical document (you might be surprised with the level of false positives in human face recognition especially for ethnically diverse processes)

•               You hold that document or that membership card

•               You eventually hold another document with same or similar data issued by another official entity

 Relying on the picture-face matching is further complicated given most passports are renewed every 10 years or so, and we all know too well how age can change our appearance – as well as style choices that like hair style or a beard without a corresponding change to the passport photo.

Recently some digital assurance has been added to the hard copy of your id or passport that increases the effort and skill required for counterfeiters to successfully fake them.  But they are still, principally a physical document that does not provide levels of assurance in our increasingly active online lives.

It is a common practice to fake some elements of your identity in the digital world, not using your real name in Facebook, giving a false date of birth, or address… some people fake a full identity without nobody noticing.

Public trust of Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Twitter drops every day and is even with the emergence of the blue tick on twitter, it is widely accepted that profiles might be fake. Fake news can blend silently with the real stuff, and bots have advanced so much that Turin would be delighted and most of us blissfully unaware of their non-humanness.

How can we trust Social Media or the big digital companies to verify any identity in a world where faking is a kind of sport?

In a world where cars drive themselves, and an AI can predict what you are going to do tomorrow, your identity verification still follows a weak process supported by rudimentary tools. The impact of identity theft is growing dramatically and, believe it or not there, are still 3.5 billion people that can validate their identities online at all.

Independent identity verification has become a paramount need, a human right in my opinion.  Follow Folio to keep connected with the innovations in this space...

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