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]

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A warm welcome to the voice of sanity in the Identity space! Well done Toby :)
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This whole subject is made too emotive, it is a question of inevitability not probability that human beings at least will want to take control of their identity and simplfy their lives. I only want one profile that does everything for me or does as much as I want it to do in any given situation or context, take this to a logical conclusion one card, one implant that holds my passport, my cashless payment system, my credit cards, debit cards, driving license, my LinkedIn profile, My facebook profile, My ZYB profile, My google account, my exchange information, my utility information etc and on and on. What then becomes important is how you manage your profile who sees what, when and under what circumstances. You can open your life up or close it down, sell your transaction, preference or behaviour data or even sell the advertising space on your card, no more Egg branding on your card, simply the brand that pays you the most. Convenience will drive us to this single profile applicable in whole or in part where-ever you choose it to be. And for the avoidance of doubt, everyone should have a unique ID but have the perpetual right never to use it if they so choose. My dogs have implant id tags so why not the rest of us, even the food in the shops as an RFID tag built in these days. Common sense dictates the debate should be about how we manage the inevitable in terms of law, policy, ehtics and etiquette and not try and hold back the tide. Bring it on
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David, that's a very fair point, and the important issue that anyone entering into the privacy space needs to understand is that your views are entirely correct. So are mine, and so would those of the 'tin-foil hat' brigade. We all have the right to determine our own comfort zone for privacy, the problems arise when we try to tell others how much they can have. My personal discomfort with the idea of a tag would be offering up a single credential for multiple applications. That single, constant index would allow third parties to 'zipper' data across multiple applications and build up an unintendedly large database about me, both between databases and over an extended period of time. This is one of the big problems of assigning a 'number for life' - that number is itself a threat to privacy.
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"mononymity" Interesting. I currently prefer "absonymity". I think I'll offer a prize over at Digital ID and see if we can get some more thinking going on.
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