Artificial identities

Those of us on the side of the angels would prefer that identity functioned as a very strong digital key so that there was a direct mapping from individual to key to data. If such a thing existed, many of the problems of casinos, law enforcement, counterterrorism, and so on would be much easier. Hence the torrent of interest in biometrics, which readers will know is actually not much of a solution.

From our position as individuals, however, we would prefer that identity was a much weaker thing, so that we could interact with other people and organizations without making it possible for others to take anything they learn about us and turn it into a search key to learn more.

Neither side of this is either completely good or completely bad. Even in private life, it’s probably good on balance that one person can find out that someone they’re dating is abusive, or cheap, or whatever.

What’s changed in the modern world is the ease with which different data about a person can be fused. Once upon a time, this depended on a few direct keys, like full names or social security numbers. With technology, almost any property of a person can be become a key with which to find out more about them.

The solution that most people imagine to the problems of preserving a private life in a world where it’s easy to learn more about someone is to somehow create partial identities. One way to do this is to create multiple email addresses, and use different ones in different contexts. Historically, authors used pen names to decouple their working identity from their personal identity.

When any attribute can become a key, partial identities don’t work any more (which doesn’t stop people trying to build approaches and systems based on them).

A better approach is to allow people to use false identities. This idea doesn’t necessarily appeal to people in Western culture because it seems as if it’s alittle bit dishonest. In other cultures, this idea would seem completely natural. And actually in AngloSaxon common law a person is allowed to assume another identity, as long as there is no intent to defraud (although this is increasingly difficult in practice, for example getting on a plane).

A false identity is only useful is certain properties can be associated with it — for example a fixed amount on money that the identity can spend. Building such identities with properties requires a kind of trusted agent, who can guarantee that there is a real identity behind the false one, and that the property genuinely does belong to the real identity. But this idea can be made to work.

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