Digital identities are hard to establish and even harder to secure. They have taken over physical verification, and they go beyond the digital ecosystem.

Identity of a man holding a polaroid of himself
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

There is a need to establish digital identities that mirror real life, so, let’s go about breaking down how technology can answer who you are and how can you be trusted.

What Is a Digital Identity

Simply put — a digital identity is a list of features and characteristics that can identify you as you. These characteristics will need to be stored and authenticated to enable various transactions.

These characteristics can take various forms and that’s how digital identities can be described.

  1. As a user: This is the easiest to understand and the most common. When you visit a website, perform online transactions, register for a seminar, you’re doing so as a user of the service. This identity helps in establishing interests, and reveal patterns of user behavior.
  2. As a credential: This is the next most commonly used form of identity. This information is what we traditionally use to identify ourselves — names, driver’s license number, passport number, bank account number, etc. This is also know as Personal Identifiable Information. This is the most sensitive form of identity and should be completely secured.
  3. As a persona: This is an emerging form of identity which relates to how you behave online. This goes beyond the user identity by looking at your behavior as a list of activities you perform in and out of the ecosystem. It takes into account your history and tries predict your actions in the present and the future.

What Are The Challenges In Establishing Identity

Now that we understand what a digital identity is, lets try to understand why it’s hard to establish.

Fragmentation

Digital identities aren’t universal, mainly because, they are highly contextualized. For instance, your Instagram handle (as a user) will not be sufficient for a bank to open an account (as a credential). On the other hand, your passport number (as a credential) will not tell a recruiter why you are good for a job (as a persona).

Also, you have to have an identity for each service you use. Google tells me that my email address is being used for registering on 139 websites. And that’s just one identity I use online.

Unpredictability

Our natural, human lives aren’t smooth flowing. There are times when I am online and there are times when I am not. My digital identity needs to reflect my real world, and that’s hard to do for identity providers for technical and legal reasons. And what happens when I tell my coworker to cover for me when I am sick? To have the ability to accurately mimic the intricacies of our behavior is a problem that we have not yet solved.

Security

Identities are getting harder and harder to secure. Manual intervention will always be needed when establishing a pattern of user behavior as usual or unusual. If your ID has been hijacked, you will be notified. Every action you take after that will be reactive and constrained. It will also require time to build one’s digital life. Deepfakes are also being to create fraudulent IDs.

What Are The Different Ways In Which Can Solve These Problems

One solution is not going solve all of the problems but we need a combination of strategies to establish that an identity belongs to the person requesting it and to help service providers to secure it.

Unified Digital Identity

We already see this as part of our ecosystem these days. I use either fingerprint or facial recognition from my device for myriad of services (mainly as credentials). It helps to ensure that the physical person is accessing their own digital world. We are essentially reusing our identities in different contexts so that our one-time, wasted data is not open for abuse.

Multitude Of Choices

Identity is not an endpoint; it’s a starting point. It’s important to provide control back to the user because we have not yet been able to create a perfect digital world which is a reflection of real life. This is also the reason why ecommerce websites will give you a choice for your preferred payment channel. It gives you the flexibility in choosing a form of identification that you are (biometrics) instead of what is issued to you.

Nationalizing Digital Identities

Countries are, now, looking into creating digital identities for their citizens to bridge the gap between the real and the digital world. It a creative use of using biometric information to reduce filling of forms and providing verified documents. The European Union (EU) has enabled electronic identification across borders. Canada and Netherlands have a Known Traveler Digital Identity (traveling internationally without a passport sounds like a terrific idea to be, frankly).



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