Despite the progress that is being made in web based service delivery and the general interoperability of distributed web systems, there is still one significant unaddressed deficiency that is holding back the potential of this market.
We still lack a universal means of asserting and communicating identity online.
It would be hard to imagine a functioning modern society without a broadly accepted means of establishing identity. And as more components of our social interactions move online, our lack of a singular, verifiable online identity is devolving from being merely cumbersome to becoming a major liability. It fractures the web into isolated communities that do not play nice together, and hinders the development of many commercial and personal forms of sharing and interaction. What’s most frustrating is that in the digital realm, universal identity is something that could be implemented in a way that’s far more convenient and efficient than any analog world equivalent.
In the physical world, identity depends on a complex network of ‘trusted agencies” that provide various levels of assurance that a person actually is who they claim to be. As individuals, we start with our birth records, and use that to begin establishing who we are. In the United States, the issuance of a birth certificate allows a person to get a uniquely identifying social security number. Issued by the federal government, this social security number is then used by schools, financial institutions, employers, and other government agencies as a means of linking records to that specific individual. These records build up on an historical basis to provide a comprehensive picture of who a person is.
Pieces of this historical record can be used as forms of identification: utility bills, bank statements, active credit cards, a driver’s license, a passport. Some ‘higher’ forms of identification are based on having multiple ‘lesser’ forms of identification. For example, getting a driver’s license in some states requires at least 4 other forms of identification. Because getting these higher forms of identification involve a more rigorous verification process, they often become a more broadly accepted means of establishing identity. For instance, if an institution trusts the screening process done by a state to issue a driver’s license, they can simply accept the license as a form of ID.
For an identity system to work in the real world, it is essential that the sources that need to check identity have trust in the sources that are issuing the identity information. While not originally intended as such, government issued passports and driver’s licenses have become the most trusted forms of identity in our society. As a practical matter, our government has become the ‘trust authority’ for establishing identity in the physical world.
Identity is a key element of so many things government is responsible for – immigration, taxation, permits, licensing, contracts, security, law enforcement, and social programs. Given the key role that government already plays in establishing identity, they are the logical body to address this issue in the online space. This is not an area that benefits from competition. Individuals need to be able to claim their digital identity once – for minimal cost – and have it accepted universally.
Probably the biggest obstacle standing in the way of having the government take on the role of issuing digital identity is the erosion of trust we have in the motives and integrity of our elected representatives. That won’t be easy to change, but establishing clearer regulations around online privacy, ownership of information, and protections from government snooping and misuse could go a long way to making government involvement in this space more acceptable.
We really don’t have another choice.
As we increasingly become a digital society, we can’t continue to ignore the importance of digital identity. What a I am advocating is letting the government issue digital certificates with public/private key pairs that would have the same legal recognition as a notarized signature does today. That’s it. The free markets can take it from there.
It’s been proven time and again that no society can flourish without a foundation of strong personal property rights. And the most fundamental element of personal property rights is your identity.
We need to act.