The Future of Digital Identity

The Future of Digital Identity
The Future of Digital Identity

Just now I attended an event organized by the Club of Amsterdam (“Shaping Your Future in the Knowledge Society”) about the Future of Digital Identity at After getting a badge and being photographed without my consent I could enter.

There were three speakers, below my notes.

Can you be in control of your online identity?

Michael Hagen talked to us about IDchecker. His talk was framed as follows:

Nowadays we can’t imagine a world without Internet anymore. We use the Internet for Social media, shopping, search engine etc and because of that we share a whole lot of information about ourselves. Once the information is there, it is nearly impossible to get it of the Internet. Is there a way we are able to change this? I think there is hope for all of us!

Hagen’s business is built on the inconvenience of having to identify yourself with paper things to do significant things online (like opening a bank account).

When you buy something in the offline world you aren’t asked a lot of information when you buy (a magazine paid for by cash for example), in the online world you need to share lots of personal details. This is not only inconvenient, but also is a security risk. He thinks these details should be left in a secure place (trusted 3rd parties), like E-Herkenning or NSTIC. They should be the trusted intermediary between you and an online service provider (or merchant). This can only work if these parties are free for the consumer (but they can make money with the data that you are willing to give away), independent and international/global.

IDchecker is only one part of the total puzzle (not an e-identity provider) . They have three main services:

  • ID Document verification
  • Intelligent Data Capture
  • Face recognition (biometrics)

There was some strong criticism from Rop Gongrijp who said that these three things are trivial to forge, meaning that either the consumer doesn’t get what is promised or merchant gets the wrong information. Rop said: “Are you aware that you are potentially creating a worse nightmare than you are solving?” Another person asked why he would centralize information that was decentralized before (“my airline currently doesn’t know what books I buy”). According to Hagen these are issues with the trusted 3rd party e-identity providers and not with his ID checking service.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Living in the Panopticon

Balázs Bodó described his talk as follows:

The story of having a double identity / multiple personas is one of the most basic toposes of human imagination. We don’t need to be Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde), or Superman (and Clarke Kent) to realize that most of us have more than one face. One we show in public, one, we prefer to keep private, one, we consciously maintain, another we unwillingly hint at, etc. The Internet makes it hard to compartmentalize these personas, since we all live in the “perfect prison”, in the Panopticon. Will Jeremy Bentham’s dream “Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burthens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!” will finally be achieved now?

The notion of privacy is culturally determined. Since moving to the Netherlands he has been thinking about how to live in a surveillance society. He doesn’t mean government surveillance, but the surveillance we create for ourselves with our smartphones. The definition between the public and the private has become somewhat blurry. He showed a Facebook graph search query: Family members of people who live in China who like Falun Gong. This is information that we create ourselves.

He asked people why we have such big windows in the Netherlands without curtains. They came back with a few answers:

  • Showing off wealth
  • Calvinist prescriptions
  • Transparency as the casual enforcement of civility

The last of course relates to Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault describing how this type of thinking has completely permeated our everyday lives. Will transparency and reform our society? To more tolerance? Or to better ways of lying and deceiving?

We don’t really seem to care about these questions if we can:

  • privatize surveillance
  • turns privacy into an (exclusive) commodity
  • data mine the networks
  • turn the lack of privacy, and the decentralized resources of those observed into shareholder value

But Foucault also said “Where there is power there is resistance.”. There is a re-emergence of an underground (like the enlightenment and pirate publisher and the samizdat in the past) on the Internet. Think of things like Wikileaks, VPN, TOR, etc. According to Bodó we might have people taking advantage of our current privacy state, but in the long run “The technologies of disappearance will create gaps” and will “win”.

Panoptic Dystopia or Citizens’ Utopia?

Annie Machon‘s talk was summarized as::

We are at a crossroads in history: never before have people had such access to information and the ability to communicate with others as the Internet now provides. Conversely, never before have governments, intelligence agencies and corporations had such an ability to track our every move, thought and word, with social media such as Facebook providing access the spies could only dream of 15 years ago. As technology continues to evolve, how do we, as citizens, preserve our basic freedoms?

Machon used to be an MI5 intelligence officer and turned into a whistleblower because she saw many things in there that were wrong and illegal. This turned her and her partner into criminal and they had to go on the run. Having to be careful for many years about her behaviour has led her to think about how it would be to live in a police state.

Her whole talk consisted of terrible examples of how we are heedlessly sliding towards a panoptic distopia, she likes to spread the awareness…

In certain parts of the world this police state is in actual effect already: the American kill list leads to many people being killed in North Africa and the Middle East by drones without the US justifying this from a legal perspective. The Patriot Act has shredded the American constitution according to Machon. Websites with an American TLD like .com, .org or .net can just be taken down without any due process. The most famous case being Kim Dotcom who was illegally spied on by the US in New Zealand and arrested by an FBI swat team. We now even pursue thought crimes. She gave the example of a professor who posted his plan to behead a fake copy of prince William during the prince’s marriage ceremony and was promptly and pre-emptively locked up for 24 hours. The UK is famous for its CCTV cameras (currently there are at least 4 million publicly owned cameras). There are even talking CCTV cameras now that are monitored live. The next step will of course will be drones for crowd control.

Mussolini said that “Fascism is the merger of the corporate with the state” and this is precisely what we are seeing in the West. We need to fight back.