How do we prove who we are? It’s easy isn’t it? When we’re younger our parents tell people who we are – they register us at the local school, our teachers introduce us to our classmates, they become our friends; the circle of people who can identify us grows. Then when we need to get our first passport – our parents, teachers, friends, friend’s parents, school crossing guard and local shop keeper can all vouch for who we are. We open a bank account; we use our passport and a letter from our school teacher to vouch for who we are. Proving our identity is pretty straightforward – our identity just exists and it belongs unequivocally to us, from the day we were born and we expect it to remain so until the day that we die.
Imagine though not having this circle of people who can vouch for us – not having the identity documents that would allow us to flash our smile and get people to trust that we are who we say we are. For many people, at some stage in their lives, they will be unable to prove their identity sufficiently to allow them to complete a task or activity. How many of us have been asked for proof of age when buying alcohol? Proving your identity to establish legal eligibility to purchase a restricted product; at 18 it’s annoying, at 30 it’s flattering, at 40 it’s embarrassing and at 50 it is ridiculous (and a bit flattering).
For those “inconvenient” occasions, we find ways to subvert the process – at 18 (cough) we find the friend who can grow a moustache to go and buy alcohol for us – or we go to the little corner shop who charge more but are also more trusting that we really are old enough. Yet when the inconvenience actually becomes a barrier to taking a full part in society – when we can’t open a bank account because we can’t provide 2 documents from list A, 5 documents from list B and don’t know our inside leg measurement. The “workarounds” for this not only limit our engagement with society, they also mean that we pay for the privilege because the best deals and offers aren’t targeted at the socially excluded – or those new to country, the young or the elderly.
Our identity is often taken to be our name, address and date of birth – a combination of details that give us uniqueness from everyone else on the planet. Yet these details are too widely and commonly known to be able to use them to prove who we are – so additional safeguards are required – things that only the true owner of the identity could have access to, whether it be knowledge or documentation. Though the information that we can provide also has to be verified by someone else – it’s no good telling the bank manager what school we went to and what childhood goldfish was called unless they can check with your parents… and that your parents can prove their identity… and that they are related to you.
For something so basic in life, something that everyone has and that everyone owns – your identity is incredibly difficult and complex to prove. As we begin to transact our lives more in more in a digital way, sat at the end of a computer, tablet or smartphone, the problem of proving to the system on the other end of the internet that it really is us becomes a whole new level of difficult.
We’d all be horrified if it was so simple that anyone could pretend to be us yet at the same time we don’t want to be inconvenienced; we really are who we claim to be – so it should be easy for us; it’s the people pretending to be us that it should stop. How to solve this dichotomy certainly isn’t going to be easy.
We can start by opening up trusted sources of data, such as our personal data that Government and the NHS hold, to trusted organisations – though to do this we need to work out which organisations we can trust and ensure that they have valid consent to access the data – and by utilising technology to enable digital identities to be established.
The problem with technology and digital transactions though is that we expect immediacy and we demand convenience; having to register for a digital identity and then wait until we’ve gone through school and build up our network of guarantors, body of data and evidence, to be able to prove who we are just isn’t going to work. In the short term – those who have less difficulty proving their identity in the real world will find it easier to prove their identity in the digital world.
A large part of our digital footprint currently used to identify us is based on credit information, so those who live by “neither a borrower nor a lender be” may also face difficulties proving who they are online. A great deal of innovation is required to support the propagation of digital identities at scale as well as a great deal of stimulus in the marketplace to develop broad accessibility and availability.
Supporting registration and subsequent use of digital identities in the real world will undoubtedly play a role in the proliferation and adoption; being able to assert our identity as easily at the checkout as we can when shopping online with the supermarket.
Once digital identities begin to become more commonplace the opportunities for organisations to improve existing practices and to open up new ways of serving their customers will swell. Whether it be allowing customers to transact regulated products in the financial service sector entirely online, reducing social media trolling by removing the ability to hide behind anonymity, reducing eCommerce fraud by linking payment to an identity or for confirming eligibility for age restricted products. Yes indeed – a digital identity could replace the need for bad teenage top lip fur.