More on Identity

I’ve mentioned the problem of figuring out when data records describe the same person in the two most recent posts. Casinos are required to ban certain people who have self-identified themselves as having a gambling problem, so they have to look carefully at everyone who books a room. They also, of course, have an interest in noticing when certain other people show up, for example card counters.

As I said yesterday, identity is a slippery thing to manage algorithmically. It’s only in the last century that governments have gotten into the act of certifying identity, via various forms of government-issued identification, going back to birth certificates.

Such documents are not necessarily very reliable. There’s a long history of forging them. But mostly identity gets fudged because people don’t use them directly — they copy names and addresses with characteristic human errors; and this process can be helped along by those who want to hide their identity. It’s socially acceptable to use variant names, and people constantly make mistakes with numbers. Those who want to can use these deniable mistakes to create multiple versions of their identities.

This is partly why there’s such an interest in biometrics. A biometric is an identity key that was given to you by God. The important distinction in biometrics is between a digital biometric and a non-digital one. A photo in a passport is a non-digital biometric — it can be used to associate the passport, and so its contents, with you, but doesn’t do much else. A digital biometric, such as a digitized photo, can act as a key to a large database of information about you.

Most biometrics are extremely easy to fool. You can read about some of the easy tricks here. Fingerprint scanners can be fooled by plastic wrap; iris scanners by printed photos of an iris.

In relationship/graph data, the problem with multiple records describing the same person is that they blur the structure of the connections around that person — making some paths seem longer, and some properties more diffuse. That’s why it’s important to be able to resolve identities when possible; but also why it’s important to stay agnostic over the long haul.

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