Digital Identities: What Could Go Wrong?

A topic that is new to me that we have been discussing in ethics is called “digital identity”. This is the concept that we will each have our identity in one place in the digital realm which we can use to authenticate and standardize many common steps we take online everyday. Things such as unique passwords to each website and financial institutions will be held securely in your own private identity through the blockchain. While I’m familiar with blockchain, I am no expert, so this video may help explain in better detail than I currently can.

The intention behind digital identity is great. It would put the user in control of their information, in a decentralized system that would eliminate a central power figure. It would provide identification for billions of people who currently do not have access in arenas where formal identification is required such an banking, and offer inclusion into many other facets of society.

However, I question how this will ultimately benefit those not already in the privileged position of having access to the internet. There are currently 7.6 billion people in the world, but only 48% have internet access. More than half the world would not be in a position to capitalize on this new technology.

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On top of the large amount of people already excluded from access, a study showed that 14% of Americans are digitally “unprepared” – meaning they would likely not be able or willing to use this technology to it’s intended purpose. The conservative 14% number (likely higher in less developed countries) used across the remaining 48% leaves us with 41% of the world who stand to benefit from digital identity.

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To move forward with this technology, in my opinion, will create a greater divide in the already unbalanced equity of our planet. As an ideological solution it sounds great, but in reality the main selling point is “How many different places did you need to update your address information?” There are many unknown consequences of implementing a system that favors the few, and to be excluded at this point would make a large divide even larger.

But for the sake of entertaining the idea however, I decided to think about what a digital identity could mean to our research participants.  If you have not read about our project, here is our latest blog post for some back story.

As we conduct research on “makers”, we have noticed a trend that they like to live along the edge of the system. Often avoiding financial institutions, getting unconventional loans from friends and family, and finding ways to use their 1099-contractor status to their advantage. So I wondered, what would happen if they had a digital identity? Would it help or hurt their already unique lifestyle? Would they actually have the agency to limit what information they shared so as to not be targeted or banned from housing?

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As I thought about my classmates who are researching the gig economy workers, I wondered would a digital identity impact their life if one mistake were to happen? What are the consequences if we don’t keep power in the hands of the user and companies like Uber and Lyft use the digital identity in their favor?

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And another group is focusing on understanding how sex workers are making ends meet in our society. An already marginalized group who depend on anonymity, would they no longer be able to protect themselves? Would the digital identity be secure enough to prevent stalkers and hackers?

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Another group is working with non-traditional families, that of single income households and how they are planning for the future. How does digital identity affect them, and their children? In a world of hackers and predators, at what point do we feel comfortable giving control of identity to our children?

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And lastly, our research partners through the project, JUST. What are the ramifications of a digital identity to a population who may not have proper immigration status, or who may be refugees fleeing from violence? Will this actually make them more included, or will these details coming to light actually push them further from mainstream society?

In my opinion, I think digital identity will be available in the near future, but I think it will have unseen consequences, which make me currently unable to support it.

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