Digital ID and Our Obsession with “Identity”


I am not a number. I am a free man. #6, The Prisoner

To read the entire essay, please go here

In the 1960s TV show, The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s character is an unnamed British intelligence agent who resigns from his job for reasons never explained, is gassed, and wakes up imprisoned in a deceptively lovely place called The Village.

He is assigned the number Six to identify him. In the first episode, he meets with number Two, who tells him, “The information in your head is priceless. I don’t know if you realize how valuable a property you are.”

In that first meeting, number Six finds out that “they” have been monitoring him his whole life. Number Two tells him, ‘There’s not much we don’t know about you, but one likes to know everything.”

This obsession with “knowing” has been going on for thousands of years. To be reduced to a number so that we can be more easily studied and categorized. To lose our individuality, while at the same time being told we are important because of the information we carry inside of us. What does that do to a person’s sense of self?

It seems that the more we “know” about ourselves, the less real we become. Perhaps the natives were on to something when they refused to be photographed, believing that the cameras were stealing their souls. Each time we offer more of ourselves into technological devices, do we become less of a person out here—in the “real” world? What is real? Do we even know anymore? They used to say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But pictures can make fantasy real now and reality fake.

Identification has evolved over thousands of years from physical symbols and skin markings or tattoos, to the written word and now, to biometric verification. You could say humans have always been obsessed with statistics, or data collection.

The word “statistic” comes from the 18th century German word Statistik, which meant the “analysis of data about the state.” For governments, data collection is of special value.

The first known instance of a government collecting data of its citizens dates back to Babylon in about 3,800 BC. Governments needed to know how many people there were so they could calculate how much food was needed to feed them. A basic and necessary calculation.

There is a book in the Bible called the Book of Numbers, where God instructed Moses in the wilderness of Sinai to count those who were able to fight. The best-known biblical example is when Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to be counted and that’s why Jesus was born there.

The Roman Empire gave power to a censor who was responsible for maintaining the census, such as overseeing government finances and supervising public morality.

It was King Henry V of England who in 1414 implemented the first “passports” for those traveling on the king’s business to foreign countries.

The Metropolitan Police Act 1829 recognized the need for police to gather records so that files could be kept on individuals, identified numerically.

By 1849, the Netherlands had developed the first decentralized personal number (PN) system. And by 1936, the United States was issuing the first Social Security cards.

From the mid 1800s onwards photo and fingerprinting identification became important within the identification system as well.

It was around 1977 that all of this information started being fed into computers. And that’s when this obsession with identification really took off. Computers made it possible to collect and store masses of information on people.

In 2004, the U.S. deployed its first statewide automated palm print databases, used mainly by the FBI to catch offenders.

In 2010, Aadhaarthe world’s largest biometric digital ID system debuted in India.

The system captures people’s fingerprints and/or iris scans and assigns a unique 12-digit Aadhaar number. As of 2019, almost 1.2 billion people had voluntarily enrolled in the program, which is intended to simplify and speed up verification for government programs while also reducing fraud.”

Biometric verification “hit the consumer market in 2013 when Apple included a fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S. Other smartphone manufacturers have followed suit. Apple Touch ID was later supplemented with Face ID in the iPhone X in 2017.”

The computer was supposed to make our lives easier, more convenient. We would no longer be drowning in paperwork. Each person would be easily identifiable. This has been anything but the case.

How many ways are we now required to prove who we are? Whereas once it was our physical selves, simply our height and weight, the color of our eyes, the fact that we were known in the village of our birth, that was it. People weren’t having “identity crises.” People weren’t obsessed with categorizing themselves in a hundred different ways, or listing their pronouns, or validating their existence by the number of likes they got on social media.

That is what is happening to us now. This obsession with proving identity is like a snowball rolling down a mountain, building in size and speed with no way of stopping. Every way that the government can possibly identify citizens and take their data is now being implemented, and it is still never enough. Speech recognition, iris recognition, facial recognition, DNA sequencing, hand geometry, and vascular pattern recognition, which relies on blood vessel patterns in the hands, even monitoring each person’s unique heartbeat.

To read the entire essay, please go here


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