What’s your perspective on digital identity?

Jonathan Donner
Apr 11, 2019 · 8 min read

At last, I think I have found a decent excuse to share pictures of my dog on my otherwise serious blog. Well, one picture anyway. Read on, and you’ll see why.

Lately. I’ve been thinking about digital identity, particularly about the different ways that people understand and approach the concept of digital identity. I wrote some initial thoughts about this in a recent medium post called “The difference between digital identity, identification, and ID”. This post is its sequel.

In February 2019 I participated in a workshop, part of the #GoodID discussion series, convened by Omidyar Network and hosted at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School in Cambridge, MA. Other participants have offered their perspectives on the workshop, including Joe Andreiu, Mark Straub, and my colleagues, the organizers themselves. To me, it was a fantastic day, bringing together a diverse group of experts and stakeholders to make progress on the very complex issues of identity in the digital age.

#GoodID is a conversation

Getting identity right isn’t easy. Getting identity right in the digital age isn’t any easier. Omidyar Network frames Good ID as empowering and protecting individuals though inclusivity, high-value, privacy, security, and user control. This is broad enough to rally most in the digital identity/identification community, but it is also broad enough to allow — or even encourage — differences of opinion about how to promote these elements, and how to weight between outcomes. In any tensions between these elements rests the crux of the task: balancing optimism and pragmatism within the #GoodID movement. If “Good ID” is a set of important outcomes, then #GoodID is the conversation that helps the community get there.

After nearly 20 years of working in the “information communication technology for development” (ICT4D) community, I’ve become attuned to the varying perspectives that people in technology communities bring to the nature of the problem and, indeed, on the nature of technology itself. I’m recognizing some of the same dynamics at play in the conversation around digital identity and what might make it good.

As Joe Andreiu mentioned in his piece, #GoodID can easily be seen as, “a conversation about shifting policy at every level to better support humanity in the digital age.” A physical room, full of smart people talking about a concept like digital identity makes it easy to view that endeavor as a dialog, but to me it’s also the right view. The workshop was useful in continuing to push me to think about how, even beyond the room, #GoodID is a conversation, one with multiple vantage points, pitfalls, and potential points of agreement.

Although I got to share a few of these impressions as my contribution to the Cambridge workshop, this blog post represents a second take on those ideas, cleaned up with the benefit of distance. Respecting the Chatham House rules under which the workshop was organized, I won’t reference specific statements by attendees. But here’s the crux, using a photography metaphor I shared in Cambridge:

The “sliders” we use to frame #GoodID

The world is awash with photos, Facebook alone stores hundreds of billions of them. Most of us have cameras on our phones, and most of those cameras give us the opportunity to tweak photos. Maybe you improve your shots the easy way, and use custom filters, or maybe you’re more hands-on and like to use the sliders on your handset or PC to adjust an image to your liking. Sliders allow you to play with tint, saturation, and contrast; you can also play with the lighting levels, brightness, shadows, etc. But once tweaked, is your image the same photo? Is my dog, in the photo(s) at the top of this article, the same dog in all three versions?

No matter how you change these sliders, one representation isn’t more real than any other. When we tweak photos, we’re all being editors, selecting and filtering, cropping and improving. I think we’re doing something similar when we talk about digital identity and #GoodID.

Here are the sliders I heard the workshop participants in Cambridge use in discussing digital identity and #GoodID:

  • System versus ecosystem. Some people want to focus good ID conversations on building, critiquing, or improving specific identification systems. Others are more concerned about how systems are interconnected in the digital era — in ways we perhaps can’t yet fully map or understand — and how digital identity is managed in an ecosystem of interrelated systems.
  • Noun versus verb. As I mentioned in my earlier post, some people think first of “an identity”: something that someone has, shares, steals, etc. Others think first of “identification”: a process by which identity is continually negotiated, asserted, or proven. Systems can support either the noun or verb, but not in the same way. One view is more essential. The other, perhaps, more sociological and systemic.
  • Assigned versus asserted. In some cases participants spoke of identities as something ascribed/assigned to an individual. This is particularly the case in organizational or institutional settings where the organization offers a credential, like an employee ID or tracking number. Contrast that with bottom-up or expressed approaches. For example, to some in the self-sovereign ID community, identity is something that is best managed by letting individuals elect to assert their identity. Others in the room wanted to talk about constructed, expressed, or accumulated identity in broader terms in which identity is built from a lifetime of analog and digital actions, captured increasingly by the digital realm. Every Facebook post, every movement, every utterance, and data trail becomes part of an identity individuals construct in our present world. These forms of identity often include broader concepts of belonging and meaning, such as nationality, ethnicity, and sexuality.
  • “Digital and” versus “digital is”. For some workshop participants, digital presented new opportunities to address deep-seated challenges of how states enumerate, track, and serve people. In this sense, an e-wallet is better than a wallet, an e-passport better than a passport, etc. For others, the digital modifier was less an augmentation and more a fundamental break, a new way of organizing society and the relationships between members within it. To me, this latter community seems more concerned with issues of privacy and autonomy, whereas the former is focused on efficiency and legibility.
  • Solvable versus permanently contested. Organizations can reasonably aspire to the goal of including, identifying, counting, and gatekeeping everyone in their organization, or every one of their customers. It’s a solvable problem. So is the problem of global identification if defined narrowly. It is no longer unrealistic to aspire to a state where every person has some form of legal or formal identification, unlocking benefits and state protections, and enabling agency in an increasingly digital world. This is the animating spirit of SDG 16.9. But others in the room may have looked to the ongoing, perhaps more philosophical, questions about what it means to have an identity, vis-à-vis the state — arguably a 500-year-old question — or books like James C. Scott’s Seeing like a State on how identity is a thoroughly modern problem. Hints of the reconfiguration of the individual to the state — present in some narratives about self-sovereign ID, the blockchain, and so on — point to a far broader question that brings the idea of an identity solution into doubt and suggests instead a set of trade-offs that need to be continually addressed through dialogues like this one.
  • “Identity or privacy” versus “identity and privacy”. My impression is that some people wanted to view identity and privacy as trade-offs, that advances in one would lead to declines in the other. Others may have been suggesting that identity and privacy are two things we can promote simultaneously, perhaps with more identity and more privacy in a digital era than would’ve been available to us in an analog age. One person even raised the idea that perhaps we need to be talking about quantum identity, where one could be identified and private at the same time!

I’ll tip my hand now: I purposely put a bunch of concepts on the left, and their “opposites” on the right. There’s probably a fair amount of correlation across all of these items. I think many computer scientists and engineers would find themselves generally more comfortable moving the sliders to the left, while some of my social scientist and humanities friends would want to nudge the sliders towards the right. That’s okay, and frankly — critically — nobody’s right.

But here’s another issue: some mixes look better than others. It is possible to move all the sliders on your photo enhancer so far to the extremes that the representation of the underlying image is at least unaesthetic and at worse unidentifiable. In the same way, some positions on digital ID make more sense than others, and I wonder if the left-right-left-right-left-right position is even cohesive and whether it’s any more so than its right-left-right-left-right-left opposite.

So the takeaways for the ongoing #GoodID conversations are:

  • Participants in #GoodID conversations need to choose their own settings. Alas, no smart little filters or brilliant algorithms, exist to optimize our perspectives for us. Think about your own perspectives on digital identification using the sliders, and see where you end up.
  • Participants should be aware that other people will choose differently or might not even be aware that they’ve chosen. The #GoodID movement has to be big enough to include people who have optimized their view of digital identity in ways different than your own.
  • It’s helpful to be conversant in multiple parts of the mix. To have a conversation one day about fixed systems, optimized for inclusion and legibility, and, the next day, about the chaotic, emergent, complex tensions in society, between power and vulnerability, between being seen and being seen too much.

Once you see the sliders at play in the conversation about Good ID, it’s easier to step back from your own position, to listen for what assumptions about digital identity other people might be bringing into the conversation. Where have they set their sliders? Do you know? Do they match yours?

It’s also easier to temporarily narrow and name the scope of the conversation you’re having. Which parts of the digital identity challenge are you working on? Are you having a conversation about a solvable engineering problem or about the shifts in one of the most elemental relationships between individuals and societies of the last 500 years? Are you having a conversation about applying new digital tools to a recognizable society, or about how society itself is being reconfigured by the shift to digital?

I believe that #GoodID has to be big enough both to host most combinations of these sliders and to accommodate diversity on additional dimensions that I haven’t thought of. The utility in this piece, like that of the earlier piece on the difference between identity, identification, and ID, is that the conversation is necessarily broad and multidisciplinary, and it demands people work together, out of their comfort zones, to make a better, more inclusive digital future.

I was thrilled by the conversations in Cambridge, and I’m looking forward to continuing the discussions, face-to-face and online, with fellow travelers under the #GoodID banner.

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