How many identities do I have?

I only have one identity. That’s me. I know who I am. You can’t steal it from me. But I use many personae, and the UK, like many ‘western’ nations, is built upon pseudonymity. For example, I have about a dozen pieces of plastic in my wallet. There is no direct link between the Toby that holds a Visa card and the T Stevens that holds an Amex. When I apply for a new financial product, the provider has to rely on the likes of Experian and Equifax to derive confidence about whether those are the same individual.

For three years I lived in Hong Kong, where it is impossible to obtain a financial product without first presenting a local ID card. It’s a very easy environment to live in; no running around with utility bills, passports etc to prove your entitlement, you just whip out the single card. Oh, but you can be jailed for bad debts. In this environment it is very hard to have multiple personae – is this ‘mononymity’?

The disturbing tension surrounding the UK’s National Identification Scheme (NIS) is that of citizens, who are accustomed to pseudonymity, coming into conflict with government that could clearly deliver transformational services and national security so much more easily if pseudonymity is removed. The NIS removes pseudonymity from the citizen’s relationship with government.

However, industry is less sure of the benefits. There is a significant vested interest in pseudonymisation: credit reference agencies exist because of it, financial providers can use it to justify product APRs and branding of the cards in your wallet, and a whole industry of information brokerage is springing up around pseudonymisation services.

Ironically, there is a convergence between the NIS’ objectives and those of the naysayers that could easily be achieved if the debate were to return to the roots of identity. A trusted identity, underwritten by the state, could be used to deliver pseudonymity and anonymity services in the commercial sector – you don’t need to know who I am if the government can find me when things go wrong. Credit cards could have no name or number on the face of them; I could use different names at work and at home; I could refuse to tell a bank who I am when I open an account.

So, back to the question: how many identities do I have? One. How many should I have? One. How should I be able to use and express that identity? In an unlimited number of ways – or not at all.

[Originally posted on the EPG blog]