The UK is currently running through a trial roll out of the national identity card, yet many remain opposed to its introduction. As we move further into the information age I believe the advantages of authenticated identity far outweigh the disadvantages.
In practical terms an identity card, made from electronic paper with a few gigabytes of storage and some secure processing facilities could have many applications:
- One card for all purposes.
- Identifying us online.
- Certificate chains allowing you to grant access to family or colleagues to known resources: cars, offices, databases, doors etc.
- On request displaying an image of the owner for trivial identification in stores.
- Displaying retailer logos and advertising.
- Displaying account balance or status.
- In tracking altruistic currency...
First of all, let us not deceive ourselves; we already have many digital identities in various forms: Debit and credit cards, passports, national insurance cards, two recent bills, an email address; the list goes on. In this light the battle over any perceived loss of freedom has already been lost, a national identity card would at least reduce the bureaucracy involved.
The digital information age has brought with it the progressive erosion of security within the offices of government, financial institutions, educational facilities and corporations. An individual with a CDROM, a USB data-key, a mobile phone, an email account or simply a web browser may move data into or out of areas which we have historically considered within the realm of her majesty's secret service.
With increasing frequency we see the most senior politicians publish articles in the electronic versions of daily newspapers, only to be greeted by an onslaught of masked jeering and heckling. It is my belief that when our face is hidden a negative trait of animal psychology comes to the fore, an innate aspect of the hunter: I can see my prey, but my prey cannot see me. In a political context this leads us toward the snide and underhand. This is clearly not a useful drive for a politician seeking to gain the will of the electorate through discussion. Ideally they would like to meet the eyes of their audience and win their hearts and minds. Is this same aspect of humanity scheming in the minds of those who stalk children via Internet chat rooms? Wouldn't you like to know who your children are talking to? Digital identities online could bring an end to the threat from darker aspects of the human psyche on the Internet.
What of the individual's freedoms? The dual between the monolithic political entities of the last century brought with it the legacy of the cold war which lead society to new levels of surveillance and new levels of anonymity, a state which is now being compounded by the arrival of the information age. The news papers inform us that secret black lists are being kept and circulated via email, that secret catalogues of fascists are being leaked. Information about you or me, compiled by the masked and circulated electronically amongst the anonymous. If you've been added to a list, wouldn't you like to know who by? Or who has read that list?
What of photographs taken covertly and circulated anonymously with no signature of ownership? Media circulated via the Internet could be prevented by the Internet's search engines unless signed with an individual's digital identity, whilst also enforcing artist acknowledgment; this is a solution many would welcome.
In time digital identity and mandatory digital signatures could bring to society a renewed trust in the communiqué we exchange, information will be regarded as false unless accompanied by the identity of the author, encouraging accountability.
Online discussion in the news papers or more contemporary discussion forums all suffer from abusive campaigning with multiple pseudonyms, giving the impression that there are many more in a faction than is actually the case. Anonymity has its uses, particularly when we are discussing the current limits of freedom itself. If online forums are to give a genuine impression of public opinion, the individual must be identified.
In the UK we are issued a national insurance number and card at the age of 16, for many our first digital acknowledgement by the governing bodies of the nation. We are already identified digitally by the state and its representatives, does bureaucracy really need to be faceless? Why shouldn't we be able to authenticate other people's identities at the very least for our safety online?
Perhaps the most compelling argument is: "How many more passwords do I need to remember?"
In the near future identifying people will be as simple as making contact with a metallic surface: immediate identification without your knowledge. I personally would prefer to live in a society that acknowledges this new sense of identity surveillance, rather than allow it to become another form of covert oppression.