Should I Worry about my Digital Identity?

The Internet is exciting. We only have to look back over the past 20 years to see how it has changed the world we live in. Even the thought of trying to live in a world without online shopping, email, or social networking would cause many people to panic and worry at how inconvenient their world would become without all of the daily benefits offered by the Internet. There is no denying the change the Internet has had on the modern world. Travelers now use smart phones rather than maps to navigate themselves to their chosen location, and newspapers are dying out to the online instantly updated news. Instead of printing photos, we now share them instantly on social media like Facebook or Instagram, fax machines are not required anymore, Wikipedia is the new encyclopedia, and even traditional crime has moved online and is causing serious issues. This just goes to show how dependent we have become on the Internet.

It is very easy to see how many people have made the Internet a key part of their lives. The world has become increasingly inter-connected. Everywhere we look people are surfing the net on their smart phones or tablets, whether they are having a coffee with their friends, on a train, or even when they are at the park.

We have now reached the point where the digital world has become an inseparable addition to our physical world. There are many elements of the digital world that we can explore with excitement, but we also have to exercise some caution about how we conduct ourselves in this new world, especially regarding our identity and privacy. Failure to exercise caution in this regard could lead to unwanted exposure of information and, in the worst case, can lead to identity theft, resulting in all kinds of negative consequences.

But what is digital identity exactly? Digital identity is a set of characteristics, qualities and behaviours, which define the entity of an individual as proof of existence in a digital world. This identity could take various shapes and forms as there are many types of personal information online, including (but not limited to) Government issued identities such as your drivers’ license, passport and social security number, residential identities like your physical home address, Internet ISP, or your social identity such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. The list of personal identities can also cover financial, health, lifestyle and shopping identities.

As there are many different types of identity, it becomes confusing to work out what our online identity actually is. This is despite the concept being around for a few decades now.

Identity also means different things to different people, so it should come as no surprise there has been no consensus reached amongst the opinion leaders and organizations over how it should be governed.

That said, it still does not disguise the fact that personal identity stakes are extremely high and a very hot topic. This may be confusing for some to hear, especially when opinion leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder and CEO of the social networking site Facebook, makes claims the world would be a better place if it was more open and connected. With Facebook recording over 1.7 billion monthly active users in the second quarter of 2016, and the third most visited website behind Google and YouTube, we should ask ourselves — is he right about privacy being a barrier to openness?

This can be a difficult question to answer, as the answer is likely to differ greatly from person to person and from generation to generation. The younger generation for example has grown up and is more comfortable with social media and the idea of maintaining an online identity. This has tended to result in a more carefree approach to what they share. Conversely, the older generations may not be so savvy with this technology and also may accordingly tend to take a more conservative approach with what they share. This makes it a challenge for the defenders of identity protection because it is impossible for such a varied user-base to be represented in a single voice.

This varied set of opinions has also made it difficult to create laws around online privacy. In fact, the laws are so relaxed that you could liken the digital world to the Wild, Wild West. You would expect laws to be in place around identity theft and protection of online information. But the reality is that many governments are still trying to catch up to all of the changes and in many countries there are no specific laws that account for the Internet phenomenon called ‘catfishing’. This is when predators either fabricate or steal online identities to create the impression of entering into an online relationship with the intention of convincing the victim to give them gifts or money as a form of affection.

This is only a part of the cybercriminal activity, which is a growing concern not only to individuals, but to corporations and government agencies as well. Andrew Churchill of the MIDAS Alliance says, “Cybercrime and fraud are the fastest growing areas of criminal activity, and vulnerabilities in identity and authentication practices account for much of this unwelcome growth”.

Juniper research has also recently predicted that data breaches will globally cost USD $2.1 trillion by 2019, which is approximately four times the estimated amount of cybercrime that was conducted in 2015.

To illustrate how problematic cyber criminal activity can be towards individuals, we only need to look at two recent high profile examples of major data breeches. One is the 2015 Ashley Madison data hack and the second being the PlayStation network outage in 2011. At the time, the PlayStation attack was one of the largest security breaches in history, which saw approximately 77 million accounts give up sensitive information such as users names, addresses, dates of birth, security questions and passwords, while Ashley Madison, the online dating service marketed towards married couples or people who are in a committed relationship who are seeking partners for affairs, saw more than 30 million people in more than 40 countries affected. This hack revealed payment transaction details, phone numbers, and real names of not just regular people, but also politicians, civil servants, priests, military members and celebrities.

From this we can see there is a need to be careful when we conduct ourselves online, but how can we engage in both online social and economic transactions without risking our identity? What we need to look at is the ways that we manage our identity as we transition from what we have been using in the physical world and into the digital economy. The future of digital identity also needs to be redesigned for the upcoming smarter, interconnected, global digital economy.

This sounds like a burden for the average citizen to have the responsibility of future proofing and taking responsibility of their identity. Would it not be easier to outsource the responsibility to a third party to manage? Corporations could then decide on everyone’s behalf what parts of an individuals’ identity is important and needs to be protected. In exchange they could profit by on-selling parts of an individuals’ identity that are deemed not so sensitive to corporations, such as advertisers or whoever they see fit. Would it not make life easier and be a win-win for everyone concerned?

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The author and contributors of this article actively support AgriLedger; a Fintech start-up aiming to provide digital identity and financial inclusion for small-holding farmers part of the 2 billion unbanked in the world.”