Identity systems will save the world

At Monday’s Enterprise Privacy Group meeting, a debate arose around the value of identity management – and in particular the Identity Metasystem – in the grand scheme of human endeavour. Why do we fret about identity when there are lots of apparently bigger issues out there? But stacked up against climate change, curing cancer and ending world hunger, identity management is a lot more important than you might think.

Our debate arose on the back of a fascinating seminar from Kim Cameron, Microsoft’s Architect of Identity. One participant suggested that we all get much too worked up about identity, and should stop fretting and get on with it. After all, it’s not like it’s a cure for world hunger, is it? I’d argue that it could be.

My hypothesis is that the provision of population-scale identity management systems has the potential to underpin an economic revolution that will put an end to many of society’s ills.

The foundation of any stable, wealthy economy is the protection of personal property. Once an individual can prove ownership of land, they can borrow money to buy it. They can invest in that land by building on it. They can grow food, manufacture goods and add value to the plot. They can borrow against the property to fund further investment. Take away that certainty and you have an economic basket case – just look at Zimbabwe’s land grabs if you have any doubt about this theory.

So if we’re to build a sound economy we need to be sure that we can prove ownership of property. But to do that, we need to prove who the owner is. In those parts of the world that lack any reliable means of registering births and deaths, where illiteracy levels are high, and local bureaucracy is unable to keep track of the population, it becomes very difficult indeed for an individual to assert his/her uniqueness within the population. Relationships with the state and commerce become very difficult indeed when the citizen can’t prove that he’s the same person they spoke to last time around. Impersonation fraud becomes endemic, and there are no trusted credentials, so even if an individual owns a plot of land, the only way they can assert that ownership is by remaining on it and defending it against theft.

One of the key components of resolving this issue is a trusted system of identity that is usable by all citizens but cannot be abused by corrupt governments or organised criminals. If a land owner can use his biometrics to prove that his title, then he has security in ownership, can borrow against the value, and invest in his future. Corrupt governments can’t steal it away from him. The broader economy grows, agriculture and manufacturing thrive, and the quality of life for the world’s most impoverished people could really be improved.

Such an identity scheme would not be about asserting ‘identity’, as is the case with many developed nation ID Card schemes, but rather about asserting uniqueness of the individual, and entitlement to ownership. A universal biometric identity scheme that obeys the Laws of Identity and is built to be free from government corruption or security weaknesses really could change the world. I’m looking forward to the day when Kim Cameron dashes into a phone box and comes out in a mask and cape ready to team up with the UN and save us all.

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