Speaking of Identity

By Joe Andrieu

Identity is one of the most important constructs of society. It’s also one of the hardest to discuss.

I’ve been in perhaps hundreds of conversations in over a dozen years about user-centric and digital identity. I’ve realized that many of our challenges in digital identity stem from two problems in these conversations. First, miscommunication; we often use the same words with different meanings. Second, we get distracted by compelling but unproductive discussions about different aspects of identity. In response, I’ve begun a conversation about how to talk about identity in a way that is both accessible and rigorous.

I want to find a way to discuss identity that laypeople understand, without alienating technologists. Digital identity—like the rest of our Internet-enabled world—is scaling faster than society knows how to handle. If we don’t develop a simple way for experts to talk with regular people about both identity and its realization in digital identity, it will be nearly impossible to build an Internet identity layer that fully addresses the needs of a modern global society. One way or another, that identity layer is being built. I believe a better conversation will make a difference.

Consider for a moment a slightly different way to think about identity: Functional Identity. If the approach feels off or triggers a reaction, please drop me a line at [email protected]. If we are to discover how to talk about this simply and effectively, your response is a valuable part of the discourse.

Reframing Identity

Our framing of identity determines how we talk about it. The facets of identity are so rich that we each bring our own hot buttons and agendas to any discussion. Some engage from a philosophical perspective, others cultural. Some dive into political issues and others get meta-physical and spiritual. These different frames are valid aspects identity’s impact on our lives. Not just valid. Vital. They help answer the question of “Why?” Why it matters, why we should care. Unfortunately, they also inflame passions. We often talk past each other to make points that have minimal relevance in other frames, leaving everyone frustrated and unheard.

As an engineer, I’m concerned with how things work. I want to learn how to fix what’s broken and how to build new things. In short, I want to know how things function. With identity, this functional perspective sidesteps the inflammatory rabbit holes, without dismissing them. Once we understand how Identity works and how we use it, we can explore how different identity choices affect individuals and society. Functional Identity lets us investigate the HOW without prejudice to WHY, viewing identity systems based on how they work and then, in turn, how they affect individuals and society.

A Functional Definition

Identity is how we keep track of people and things and, in turn, how they keep track of us.

That’s it. We learn people’s names, we observe them and hear gossip and consume media. We then apply that sense of who they are to our dealings with them. Others do the same in return.

In computational systems, we assign identifiers, we accumulate observations, we correlate those observations with entities, we make conclusions based on those observations and we apply those conclusions in interactions with those same entities.

In other contexts, we give people name tags, we share business cards, and we wear bracelets. All to facilitate keeping track of each other.

This simple definition is provocative. It triggers associations with Big Brother and the surveillance state. It brings up ideas about embedded chips and tattooed serial numbers. It conjures fears of government or corporations constantly tracking what we do.

Which is ok, because, in fact, those are the most feared abuses of identity. It’s important to realize when we talk about identity that we are always talking about how we keep track of people.

There are also a number of wonderful uses of identity that are worth remembering. The joy of a child saying “Momma” or a lover calling out your name. The pride in your name on a diploma. The simple benefit of seeing another’s name tag at a workshop and better remembering that fascinating conversation. Identity enables so much good stuff *because* it helps us keep track of people and things.

Like white space in visual design or writing, identity systems are also defined by how they prevent or minimize tracking. While identity is useful, too much tracking is untenable. Every identity system makes choices about efficiency and privacy, enabling specific means of tracking while limiting others. Realizing that the good consequences of identity inevitably enable the bad is fundamental to understanding how to build systems that appropriately balance the two.

The functional approach reaches beyond digital systems to understand how identity works throughout society. By better understanding how identity functions, we will be able to build systems that enhance privacy and human dignity, while improving identity assurance and security.


Engineers, entrepreneurs, and financiers sometimes ask “Why?” Why are we spending so much time with navel-gazing conversations about identity? Why not just build something and fix it if it is broken? To be fair, I get why “Identity” with a capital “I” is banned in certain working groups. Those distracting conversations can derail productive efforts to build good systems and ship working code. And yet, there is a vitally important and simple reason to better understand identity: human dignity.

When we build identity systems without a core understanding of identity, we risk inadvertently compromising human dignity.

There are times when security concerns demand compromise. Fine. It’s the job of our political systems—local, national, and international—to moderate the worst abuses and to establish boundaries and practices that serve basic human rights.

But when engineers unwittingly compromise the ability of individuals to self-express their identity, when our systems subject individuals to unreasonable restrictions and deny basic services because of a flawed understanding of identity, that’s an avoidable tragedy. What might seem minor today could lead to the loss of privacy, liberty, or even life for an individual whose identity is unintentionally compromised. That’s why it pays to understand identity, so the systems we build intentionally enable human dignity instead of accidentally destroy it.

In a future column, we’ll discuss the elements of Functional Identity, with the eventual goal of defining the fundamental objects and methods that comprise any identity system, digital or otherwise. From there we can start to explore the impact on privacy and freedom and human dignity that different identity systems afford.

In the meantime, I’m off to ID2020, a UN Summit about the potential for blockchain technology to help with UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9. We’ll be exploring how self-sovereign identity might enable us to create a legal identity for everyone on the planet by 2030, including birth registration. Not a small task.

I hope you’ll join me as we continue the conversation.

This article also appears here.


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