Does a singular identity limit our potential for control?

Davos-Klosters’ (World Economic Forum) whitepaper on digital identity argues that today digital identity is fractious: 

“Which leads to daily frustrations with countless usernames, forgotten passwords, ID documents and time wasted waiting to be verified and authenticated to complete a task such as gaining access to a building, boarding a plane, getting a job, etc.” 

He also details the importance of a singular identity for humanitarian and legal reasons. In order to have a voice, “a verifiable and trusted identity is necessary to interact and transact with others.”

While I agree, I think we need to distinguish between identifying information like our birthdate, social security number, and nationality and more adaptable pieces of our identity like behaviors, values, interests, and emotions. 

In many papers we’ve read, both aspects of identity are used somewhat interchangeably. As computers spread into everyday objects and consumer tracking continues to get sneakier,  the potential for data misuse, manipulation, and power imbalances becomes greater. This is magnified if we are then also subject to one, singular identity that is connected to all of our interactions. Davos-Klosters recognizes this as a risk, and said we need “options for those not wanting to have a digital identity or those that want to share only parts of their identities (e.g. different personas in a different context) or only share relevant identity data for specific purposes must be considered.”

Distinguishing Identities

Moving forward in discussions about identity, I argue there should be a clearer distinction between fixed parts of identity (things that might go on an ID) and adaptable parts of our identity.

Identity Timeline 3

Until we have more control and transparency over our data, I don’t feel comfortable arguing for unified identities. I don’t trust that corporations won’t use a humanitarian angle to ID people as an opportunity to sneak in data tracking on more adaptable, personal parts of our identity.

Imagine a future where all aspects of your identity were observed, noted, and stored — forever. From the moment you’re born, every aspect of your physical presence, interests, relationship, use of language — everything — was captured and stored. 

As ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) popularizes, this future is possible. Right now, our digital behavior is meticulously monitored and stored in connection with our device ID, email address, or social media login. Our nondigital actions are not far behind. The distinction between our physical and digital presence is waining. 

Without control of our data, a fractured identity is one of the few protections we have.

Right now, it’s possible for me to sign into my YouTube account with one email and watch certain videos and switch to a different browser for others (something I do regularly when watching work-related content like tutorials vs. entertaining videos about food or cultures). I consciously keep those pieces of myself separate, because I want to stay in a different mindset. I want to target different sides of myself. 

If I were to have only one unified identity across all services, I would lose this control. All of my actions could be cataloged and attributed to me.

I remember when I was younger and adults would threaten me not to make bad decisions because “they would go on my permanent record.” I now know that no such permanent record exists. But in a world with a single identity that is made up of your digital and real-life actions, that permanent record could be a reality. And systems could start gathering and attributing data to you before you even have the capacity to consent.

Imagine a day where every interaction you have is personalized to who the system thinks you are. 

Your alarm wakes you up at just the right time with news articles that have been curated entirely for your interests, storefronts or vending machines could adapt to only show you things you’re interested in, your doctor could only give you recommendations based on previous behaviors from the system. Everything could be built around your singular identity of how the system views you. 

But what if you wanted to make a change? Imagine trying to combat a world that has been entirely personalized for who you’ve been. You would rarely have challenges or catalysts to inspire change. Even if you did, you’d have to combat a lifetime of data that informs your current state. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the algorithm thinks you are this way, maybe you’ll just always be that way. And who gets to write the algorithm? (That’s a whirlwind question for a later date.) 

This already happens on a certain level with media consumption and social media habits. We create an echo chamber that is nearly impossible to escape. The only way I can (somewhat) escape is by changing my email or signing up for a new account and retraining the system. But if we had a unified identity, we’d lose that control too.

Discrimination & Manipulation

Another concern of unifying our digital identities is the potential for misuse. While fixed pieces of our identity are subject to discrimination, adaptable pieces of our identity are subject to manipulation. 

Right now one of the only safeguards I have to combat constant tracking is through a purposefully fractured identity. 

Discriminate

 

And finally, even if we are given more agency, I am concerned that information avoidance will keep us from truly being in control of our digital identities. So while we continue on this thread of the importance of digital identities, let’s be careful to not lump in data that may only lead to misuse.