Rob van Kranenburg: Disposable ID: Why is the debate on Identity happening now and why is it so important?

The classical tools and theories of the international political economy and diplomacy were the product of and well suited for the analogue world, where old strategies built on resource scarcity and ‘real’ events with physical objects apply. As transportation was experiencing revolution with cars, roads and highways, becoming mainstream, it was mission critical to come up with the traffic rules, system of number plates and driving licenses to enable frictionless collaboration among complex system participations. These rules are simple as they are meant to avoid collisions. Since no one wants to have accidents, every system participant benefits. It is a clear win-win situation. The analogy with (inter)governmental relations is clear. As long as the key asset was land or territory, waging war had to be carefully considered, and therefore peace was the best option as it allowed us to deploy scarce resources to strengthen internal infrastructure.

The world rapidly shifts from analogue to digital. Rules have now changed with self-driving connected cars that make decisions not on ‘real’ events but on data streams that can enable predictive analytics and many other forms of augmented decision. These data streams can act in the car without the knowledge of the driver.

By analogy, this extends to the rules of intergovernmental relations. These rules have changed too. As data is the new source of future value, identity becomes the main issue in the next decade. As data becomes as important or more important than territory as a means to power (defined as funding capability of future value) new rules of engagement are necessary.

Registration of people in China started 278 BC with the first Emperor. In Europe, Napoleon started this process in 1800 with the ‘Code Civil’. These two cultural trajectories are important to understand the current digital transition in which politics and technology are deeply intertwined. In the old analogue days this hard relationship between a person and a number was defined in one reality (what actually happened, what one could actually see, what one actually did) and harnessed within a rule of law system. As we move into a hybrid world, it is not just the sum of analogue + the data in digital devices. As every object becomes not only digitally addressable and traceable (item level tagging) but is also collecting data about the (people in) the surroundings, the world of #IoT, Big Data, and AI comes into being. Meaning that whoever owns the relationships of these (objects in the) surroundings with one person’s number, currently companies with shareholder obligations and national governments with selected self -interests, is given a large number of extra layers of capabilities.

Capabilities and therefore agency that was not included in the original negotiated registration process, not democratically established and non- accountable (non-transparent algorithms). Capabilities that also acquire a pro-active capacity, i.e. predictions about behavior, that is not fully shared – or only shared when beneficial to the country or company – with the person whose number is used.

The hardest concept to grasp in this Digital Transition is the relative (semi) autonomous gaze of the network itself. This network is a balance of cloud and edge services (data storage on the device), with AI running inside objects in everyday activities (wearables, washing machines, cars). For this network all its users are ‘entities’, these can be machines, people and processes (templates that predefine scenarios). It becomes clear that ‘identity’, as in singular identities, is no longer a relevant and productive concept.

New models in insurance in the case of an accident with a self-driving car reason as follows: the car gets awarded a temporary identity, the person(s) involved get awarded temporary identity, the rock the car hits before it goes into the water receives a temporary identity, as well as the (pollution in) the water. The combined result of this becomes an ‘event’ identity. This event identity subsequently becomes the basis for negotiating claims.

In the current governmental and commercial relationship frameworks, we are used to dealing with three groups of actors:

  • citizens/endusers
  • industry/SMEsme
  • governance/legal

The data flow of IoT/Big Data/blockchain will make new entities consisting of different qualities taken from the former three groups. The most important feature of this approach is that identity becomes an activity dispersed over and managed by the person and his or her attributes profile, objects, machines or robots performing the service and the enabling connectivity harnessed in an architecture.

Unlike the last decades of austerity and crisis management, this value layer is immensely rich and abundant, but only if it is under proper and responsible control.

The last decade saw over The Top Players on housing (AirBnB), mobility (Über), music (Spotify), data storage (Azure, Amazon, Alicloud). The next one will be characterized by fights over the core addressability and unique identifiers of people, objects and events. We are on the brink of a ‘Google’ moment. The first webpage of Google charmed users with its clarity, simplicity and performance. We can now see it as the ‘Trojan Horse’ porting large datasets and value to this corporate player. But Google as a ‘search engine’ was from the beginning not an end in itself, but an enabler. The original internet framework as Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf described it was “distributed, decentralized but hierarchically structured computer services was considered to be a natural consequence of the organization of the present and foreseeable marketplace for the use of systems like the Digital Library.” [1]In 1988 these authors described a nationwide system of systems. They envisaged a new product: a Personal Library System (PLS) to manage all of a user’s information (meaning content) needs.

This system approach also envisioned #IoT situations where not only natural persons, but machines, robots and sensor enabled objects would need to be searched and found. Wearables, smart homes, connected cars and smart cities can be described as connected systems balancing processing of information in the Cloud an (more and more) at the edge (on the devices themselves). The main difference between the web and #IoT of today is that instead of a client (which can be a person or a connected object) that is actively pulling for data and information, the data, information, and services get pushed to clients that expose their wants and needs in a coherent way. This represents the shift from Customer Relation Management and search engines to VRM, Vendor Relation Management. VRM gives customers means to relate to many different companies, institutions, governments and citizens. [2]

Identity becomes a crucial factor then in economics (dynamic pricing, aggregated services, personalized offerings) as well as in politics (paying taxes and fines and qualifying for voting in elections) and supra national infrastructures (qualifying for services like a passport) in certain case, like the social credit system, combining all categories into singular repositories dedicated to a single person. With Libra, Facebook is set to fulfill the killer retail application of IoT: full dynamic pricing on any good, any service, any human want or need. Currently our online identities are giving us individual pricing for any good or service based on algorithms that are fully commercial. By 2030 FMCG will be item level tagged enabling individual and dynamic pricing in everyday shopping.

Public identity frameworks become vital if any public economic agency is desirable.

The Facebook white-paper on LIBRA (May 2019) specifies under The Libra Association purposes: “An additional goal of the association is to develop and promote an open identity standard. We believe that decentralized and portable digital identity is a prerequisite to financial inclusion and competition” (Libra Association Members, 2019).

Opposition is mounting, both against a national social credit system and a behavioral tracking (dynamic pricing combined with framework, which people experience as control systems that reduces their potentiality. Yet, we cannot go back as individuals, communities and societies to analogue drivers. Seamless connectivity enables full resource management, one of the requirements to achieve the Climate Agreements (Paris) as it facilitates wasting energy resources. Full transparency and accountability in services will drastically reduce overhead, corruption and greed. People benefit from a support system that can give them timely advice on actions and services.

Any system built, however benevolently on the one person – one number framework, will tend to gather and use more and more data. As such it is the heart of the matter that needs to be ‘broken’ in order for a seamless connectivity to be not just adopted but welcomed by all generations in society.

[1] THE DIGITAL LIBRARY PROJECT VOLUME 1: The World of Knowbots (DRAFT) AN OPEN ARCHITECTURE FOR A DIGITAL LIBRARY SYSTEM AND A PLAN FOR ITS DEVELOPMENT. Robert E. Kahn and Vinton G. Cerf Corporation for National Research Initiatives March 1988 ©Corp. for National Research Initiatives, 1988

[2] These means are the customer’s alone — as personal as her own browser, computer, clothes, bike or car. For example, with VRM a customer will have her own way to change her contact information with every company she knows, in one move. Likewise, a customer will be able to inform many companies at once that she is interested in a particular product or service, while also controlling how much she reveals about herself and how that personal data can be used.