How do I demonstrate that I am me?

The question of identity, how the question in the title gets answered, is one with an interesting history; and one that is changing again at the moment.

For much of human history, identity was almost completely determined by the fact that a person was born and grew up in a community where everyone knew them, and never moved far from this community. This is still true in many parts of the world, but was surprisingly true in the developed world until quite recently.

Things changed when migration to cities started in a big way, in Western countries perhaps around the 16th century and accelerating since then. Someone who moved to a city could become anyone they wanted as long as they kept away from people from the same general area as they were, who might know them or know of them. This was harder than it seemed, mostly because of the tendency of people with the same origin to live contiguously when they arrived in a city (so if you were from X but didn’t live in the X area, you automatically attracted attention). This ability to assume new identities was grist to the mill of detective stories up to about 100 years ago (notably Austin Freeman).

In the last 100 years, governments have become the guarantors of identity because of the requirement to collect taxes, mostly income taxes; and, for an increasing number of people, because of the need to cross borders. So governments issue identity documents that are tied to a single person via some kind of link, perhaps a biometric or even an address. And, for most people, this is where things stand now.

But there are new forms of identity beginning to be created, and new ways to blur identities as well.

I have had a web page with my photo on it, and links to my papers, and so on, since the web began. Copies of this web page have been periodically archived, at moments that I can’t control, by the Wayback Engine and probably several other places as well. If I want to prove my identity, I can now do it without any government intervention by pointing to these copies of my web page which have information that links them unqiuely to me. For many people, their Facebook or LinkedIn profile pages would do the same thing if they were publicly archivable. So identity is once again moving away from something that is government mediated to something that is more decentralized and community based.

On the other side of the coin, governments and others are actively creating artificial personas, sometimes called sock puppets. These personas are controlled by a real person, but one person can control many of them, and the postings of each persona don’t need to be the ones that the controller would naturally make. In other words if, on the internet, nobody can tell you’re a dog, it follows that nobody can tell you’re not a construct either.

In order to make these sock puppets realistic, a back story has to be created for each one; increasingly, this means that they have to have a created trail in places where this might be looked for. Once upon a time, intelligence organizations would go into official records and create entries for non-existent people; this is inherently difficult, especially in records that are owned by other governments (remember, governments validated identities); so often identities of people who had died were used as starting points. I expect we’ll see that same thing happening in the online world.

But there’s an important difference: while governments can go back and change history embodied in records, neither they nor anyone else can change the history embedded in web sites that, at random times, take a snapshot of some part of the web. So creating realistic sock puppets is actually really difficult.

There’s also the issue of language: one controller runnning multiple sock puppets cannot avoid using detectably similar language patterns for all of them; and eventually this will make it possible to detect artificial personas.

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