by Barry Chudakov on April 14th, 2010

Designer Privacy

How does anyone know who you are? On the surface this may seem like a question too abstract (or obvious) to consider. Yet it is a question government officials are facing every day. In fact, governments around the world are presenting an intriguing new narrative that may come soon to a plastic card or digital device near you. With ID cards, at long last citizenry will have something as important as suffrage—an established identity.



We are accustomed to newspeak categories such as haves and have-nots. It appears we are heading toward a new social divide: the identified and the unidentified. I have begun to wonder,to what lengths will we go to obscure or hide our identities once identification tools become everyware, ubiquitous and “diffused into everyday life”? What will we do to try to escape from such profiling? What will our collective reaction be to identity 2.0—effectively having a see-through identity, potentially accessible by anyone, anywhere, at any time?


The idea of socially ratified identity originated with tribes and then was adopted by the nation state. Either you belonged to the tribe or you were an alien. This notion is at the core of all identity discussions. Meanwhile, our technologies for identifying ourselves have accelerated exponentially. In light of that acceleration, the state of identity today is far different than any time in history.


Shibboleth, Doris Salcedo, Tate Modern Gallery, Flickr, wil freeborn, all rights reserved. The crack represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.


In the Bible, The Book of Judges 12:6 relates that the Hebrew word shibbōleth (stream) was used as an identity test to distinguish Gileadites from refugee Ephraimites. While the U.S. has never instituted a self-titled identity card, during World War II England established a national ID card to facilitate identification of aliens. Citizens were required to carry the card at all times and show it on demand to police and members of the armed forces. In 1951, the Acting Lord Chief Justice ruled that police demanding that individuals show their ID cards was unlawful because it was not relevant to the purposes for which the card was adopted. This ruling led the the repealing of the National Registration Act and the end of the national ID card in the UK in 1952.


WWII identity card poster, Flickr, devonhaupt, all rights reserved.

According to Privacy International, as of 1996 possession of identity cards was compulsory in about 100 countries, however what constitutes “compulsory” varies. In some countries, it is compulsory to have an identity card when a person reaches a prescribed age. The penalty for not having an ID is typically a fine, but in some cases it may result in detention until identity is established.

As personal information surrounding each of us mounts in quantity and depth, population expansion meets biometrics in an important new Metalife incarnation. All of us are facing pervasive personal deconstruction. Today any artifact of you (driver’s license, medical record, iris scan, cell phone text) has the potential to create a Metalife—especially due to the enlivening of information. Our identity is no longer private: this is the engine of our emerging identity publicy.


Source: Flickr, oldbearchris, all rights reserved.


Recently the Canadian province of Alberta considered taking the question of identity in a new direction, issuing biometric ID cards for the homeless. The province is reportedly working on ways to provide ID cards that could include biometric samples of fingerprints or facial scans. Housing Minister Jonathan Denis provided the government rationale.


    “We are going to be discussing a biometric type of system. Identification does have value on the street and we have to make sure we have those adequate controls in place…. it would make someone feel like more of a person, help them get on their feet with a bank account — things you can’t get without identification.”


Service Alberta Minister Heather Klimchuk said further that the card would allow homeless people to more easily obtain government ID by making it possible for a social worker to vouch for their identities in the absence of other documentation. It would also allow people to list a homeless shelter as a proxy address.


India has 1.2 billion people. Presently Indian citizens can be issued up to 20 proofs of identity, including birth certificates, driving licences and ration cards, although none is accepted universally. Last year the Indian government announced that it will issue biometric ID cards for all 1.2 billion citizens. Nandan Nilekani, who left Infosys, the outsourcing giant that he co-founded, is in charge of the operation. He intends for the cards to be linked to a “ubiquitous online database” accessible from anywhere. However, he also realizes the enormity of his task, calling it a “humongous, mind-boggling challenge.” A computer chip in each card will contain personal data and proof of identity, such as fingerprint or iris scans. Criminal records and credit histories may also be included. To enact his vision, Mr. Nilekani will have to persuade as many as 60 government departments to co-operate. The Indian government has said that the first cards will be issued within 18 months, however analysts say that it will take at least four years for the project to reach “critical mass”. Not unexpectedly, experts warn that the database, which will be one of the world’s largest stores of personal information, will prove an irresistible target for identity thieves.


Digital fingerprint: cybercrime is on the rise, Flickr, Trick77, all rights reserved.

Mr. Nilekani is not deterred. In fact, he is an identity evangelist: “we have the opportunity to give every Indian citizen, for the first time, a unique identity.” Doesn’t each of those 1.2 billion Indians already have a unique identity? What the former Infosys exective means is an identity verifiable and accessible by the state, matching a specific record in a database. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? the Roman poet Juvenal asked. Who watches the watchmen?


I have begun to consider that there is a subtext to this discussion. Is it fanciful to imagine that as identity cards become more widely adopted, there will be a powerful and pervasive reaction to this state-monitored, full-body identity capture? As that information can be spread virally via numerous technologies and ever more nimble and seductive social media, those who are able will adopt a designer identity, a new Metalife? Everyware identity verification will spawn an underground cottage industry, the identity equivalent of securing an offshore bank account. As paparazzi intrusions embolden and TMZingers create newer, more picante gotcha stories and videos, I believe the famous, the wealthy, and the otherwise privileged will create inventive identity dodges and self-variations. These will deflect inquiry into their personal behaviors and data. Akin to gated communities and security guards, those who can afford it will seek fame relief, looking to shield their personal information from the growing database of intentions, aka search, that Stowe Boyd has said replaces privacy with publicy.


I believe the combination of governments’ rising engagement with identity issues, and the spread of functional everyware will lead to what I am calling designer privacy. While privacy has been a rarity in human history, in the future it may well become a highly paid privilege. At present we have little sense of the concrete details of such a service. However, given the perfect storm of visual culture, celebrity, biometric technology and intensified government scrutiny into the minutiae of our bodies and movements, the ablest among us will seek to come in from the storm.

Interesting days lie just ahead.



Further Information on Privacy & Identity


A History of Privacy in America

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Identity 2.0

Dick Hardt OSCON 2005 Keynote Address: Identity 2.0

Facebook is “deliberately killing privacy”

On Facebook and Online, Privacy Is Only an Illusion

Online privacy fears are real


Electronic Frontier Foundation: Privacy

Technology Outpaces Privacy (Yet Again)

The internet and the ‘end of privacy’

Trading Privacy for Convenience

Why your Facebook ID is marketers’ Holy Grail


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