You’re Not Who You Think You Are
There are few fundamental questions have eluded humans since we started to question and document the world around us. Why are we here? What’s the point of all this? Who am I?
I want to focus on that final question.
Humans are having an identity crisis on a grand scale. Social media accounts, government IDs, employee logins and finstagrams are fragmenting our identity.
Pshh, I know who I am
In the last 50 year we have enjoyed some amazing inventions that have changed the landscape of the world we know.
Friends and family, relationships and communication has moved primarily to digital format. Something like 2.5 billion people have smartphones, and ~3.57 billion have access to the internet also amazing 2 billion of those users are from developing countries.
Most of the readers of this are likely familiar with the explosive growth of the internet and the rapid developments we see in our lives. Eg. apps around convenience, improved quality of life, and ease of access.
With the proliferation of digital communication as means for almost all business and personal relationships we’ve needed to establish a digital identity or virtual alias.
We make accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin to suffice. Companies like the ones mentioned capitalized on this and provided locations for us to create our identities.
“Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to. It’s almost a disadvantage if you’re not on it now”
— Mark Zuckerberg
We have had unforeseen but obvious problems with this. Identity fraud, cat-fishing, difficult times at the DMV, or annoyingly proving who you are at every hospital, bank or official place.
The harsh reality
You don’t own who you are. Paradoxically as we strive to find identity though the means of profile creation, job titles and business card we don’t really own any of it. Facebook holds your “profile” and subsequently your “identity”, LinkedIn defines and stores your professional self on their servers. Similarly we follow equal standards in modern day banking (in the USA) where we do not actually own our money, it is a balance kept on a ledger — likely only an ephemeral digital copy on some sever somewhere.
I repeat. You do not own your identity, you own access to “trusted” places that state things about yourself.
We trust that Facebook won’t change your profile information without your intervention. This becomes a shared place for you to identify yourself and others can access this information.
We trust banks the same exact way, we assume they won’t add or remove money from your account without you buying or depositing anything. We are given a card that links to an ID number that is linked to your “money” and by these means we access our accounts. We place all our trust in the belief that our bank will not act malicious.
Thought experiment, you decide how you feel about this
How we got here
Identity management historically is an examples of top down governance. We have trusted parties that agree to issue identities and we blindly trust these sources (they generally have guns). The bodies that we have had most trust in are Nation States, and they essentially define our identity. Without these trusted 3rd parties a city, state or federal ID would have no weight, why would anyone trust an ID if they do not have trust in the issuer.
Over the course of the internets existence, the concepts of identity have been created, broken, challenged, synthesized, obfuscated, traded, secured and re-engineered to fit our new fast paced communication medium.
Aside from allowing users a place to publicly state who they are, companies have capitalized on the aggregation of identity (more often then not, using these patchwork of identities to create a 360 view of a single person just to make an educated guess on what they want to buy).
My first degree was awarded from the Marketing department of WP Carey Business School, where we had many classes and projects with operating businesses, all surrounding best identifying their customer, their needs, wants; and most importantly what they “feel like they need”.
Building profiles and uncovering the full identities of your customers buy tying together various profiles is a multi-million dollar business.
A golden rule in sales — Know your customer, right.
Whatchu gonna do about it?
Naturally, people like to own their things; and even more so, we want to own ourselves. If you’ve ever been a victim of identity fraud I’m sure you can attest the unshakeable unnerving feeling that someone has intruded in your life, and even more so for forcing themselves into your shoes.
Bottom up is the solution. Assertions about oneself, by oneself. I am David; a perfect example. Okay now why would you trust that over a state ID that says otherwise. What if 100 of my friends vouched that I was who I said I was, would that be more believable? What if I had thousands of people all over the world assert that I am telling the truth. Is the collective agreement that I am who I am stronger then the assertion from one “trusted” body?
Assuming that you agree the larger consensus about identity is likely more truthful than blind faith in someone in a uniform, we can do even better if we leverage many people agreeing about more then just my single assertion.
We can add more complex question that verify identity; we can as questions that would only be know if the person is who they assert who they are.
While immediately you may wonder how this would work, there is already work done in areas that allow for global consensus can be reached and sufficiently secure data storage for people to assert this identity information.
Checklist to owning yourself
There are three issues, one is Permanence, Persistence, Individuality.
Permanence is about naming: content-addressing makes it so that an object’s name will always be the same.
Persistence is about storage. If something has a location to be stored forever and there is no degradation. It will persist forever.
Individuality is about a truly unique identifier, your DNA (identical twins have the same DNA) although the human genome contains thousands upon thousands of STR markers, only a small core set of loci have been selected for use in forensic DNA and human identity testing.
Basically, if you can persist a permanent and unchangeable name that no one else has ever or will ever have-you have achieved true identity.
No one can remove it if its persisted, no one can mix it up if it is permeant, and no one can dispute who it is, if it is truly unique.
Luckily we have been working toward the technology needed to achieve a true identity.
- Permanence — Blockchain addressing (public)
- Persistence — Ubiquity of computer and digital storage
- Individualism — Short tandem repeat typing (STRT) technologies used in human identity testing
Noteable work in progress
Is a distributed identity provider who is aiming to solve the problems around permanence and persistence, by storing unique IDs on the Ethereum Blockchain. It does not attempt to solve the issue around individualism, so a single person can make many IDs.
Solves: Permanence and Persistence well
23andMe & AncesteryDNA
Companies grown out of laboratories are capitalizing on the decreased cost to perform effect and accurate DNA sequencing. These companies store huge volumes of DNA sequences and subsequently each persons STRT, short tandem repeat typing, is kinda like a DNA fingerprint.
A new report out from market research firm Kalorama Information estimates that the consumer market for genetic health testing alone could nearly triple from about $99 million this past year to $310 million in 2022. That’s an awful lot of spit.
Text & Email Verification
Much closer to home, companies now attempt to solve the issue of individualism by tying users to email or more preferably a cell phone number. The cell phone is preferred because phones cost money and that prohibits abuse of fake accounts (to some level) also they have identifiable information tied to the account which the number is registered.
Solves: Individualism (kinda — not really)
Okay, we’ve covered the harsh truth about not owning your identity, the current state of managing modern day identity, the bottom up solution, the definitions and concepts around permanence, persistence and individualism, and lastly some approaches to handles these issues now.
What do you think about owning your identity. How do you define yourself?
If you learned anything or have any ideas from this article please clap or comment! I really appreciate any feedback and ideas about the future of identity management. Thanks