Who Are You: A Primer on Digital Identity
When Meta’s services went down this past October, users were unable to access all of Meta’s applications, including Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. This digital outage had physical consequences, as some Meta employees got locked out of their offices. The effects rippled outside of Meta’s own ecosystem, as some consumers soon discovered they were unable to log in to shop on select e-commerce websites, while others quickly found out that they could no longer access the accounts used to control their smart TVs or smart thermostats. Drawn by the ease of using Facebook accounts to log into websites, users had come to allow their Facebook account to act as a kind of digital identity. The outage, along with revelations from a fortuitously timed whistleblower, reminded users just how much individuals and governments depend on the “critical infrastructure” Facebook provides. Lawmakers in the U.S. have struggled with the question of how Meta should be regulated, or how its power should be reined in. One step towards mitigating Meta’s power would be to develop alternative digital Identity Management (“IdM”) systems.
The Legal Role of Identification
Technology has been used to verify identity for hundreds of years. Back in the third century B.C.E., fingerprints, recorded in wax, were used to authenticate written documents. For centuries, identification technology has allowed strangers to bridge a “trust gap” by authenticating and authorizing.
In the present day, IdM systems have become a critical piece of technology for governments, allowing for the orderly provision of a range of services, like healthcare, voting, and education. IdM systems are also critical for the individual, because they allow a person to “prove one’s status as a person who can exercise rights and demand protection under the law.” The UN went so far as to describe an individual’s ability to prove a legal identity as a “fundamental and universal human right.”
Currently, there are over one billion people who live in the “identity gap” and cannot prove their legal identity. Put another way, one billion people lack a fundamental, universal human right. What makes this issue more pernicious is that the majority of individuals in the identity gap are women, children, stateless individuals and refugees. The lack or loss of legal identity credentials is correlated with increased risk for displacement, underage marriage, and child trafficking. Individuals living in the “identity gap” face significant barriers to receiving “basic social opportunities.”
Identity in Digital Age
The legal and social issues created by the “identity gap” are now evolving. In addition to the individuals who can’t prove their legal identity at all, there are over 3.4 billion people who have a legally recognized identification, but cannot use that identification in the digital world.
A 2017 European Commission Report found that an individual’s ability to have a digital identity “verg[es] on a human right.” The report then argued that one of the deep flaws of the internet is that there is no reliable, secure method to identify people online. The New York Times called this “one of biggest failures of the… internet.” Still, proving digital identity isn’t just a human rights issue; it’s also critical for economic development. A McKinsey report posited that a comprehensive digital IdM system would “unlock economic value equivalent to 3 to 13 percent of GDP in 2030.”
Digital IdM systems, however, are not without risk. These systems are often developed in conjunction with biometric databases, creating systems that are “ripe for exploitation and abuse.”
The most common IdM scheme is a “centralized” system; in a centralized IdM scheme, a single entity is responsible for issuing and maintaining the identification and corresponding information. In centralized IdM schemes, identity is often linked to a certain benefit or right. One popular example in the United States is the Social Security Number (“SSN”); SSNs are issued by the Social Security Administration, who then use that number to maintain information about what social security benefits an individual is eligible to receive. Having an SSN is linked to the right to participate in the social security system.
The centralized IdM schemes typically verify identity in one of two ways: via a physical and anti-forgery mechanism or a registry. These systems have proved remarkably resilient for a few reasons. They are easily stored for long periods of times and can be easily presented for many different kinds of purposes. Still, both ways have shortcomings, including function creep and lack of security.
Identity systems that rely on anti-forgery mechanisms, like signatures, watermarks, or special designs, can also have security flaws. First, these documents require the checking party to validate every anti-forgery mechanism; this might require high levels of skill, time, or expertise. Additionally, once a physical identification is issued, the issuing party is generally unable to revoke or control the information. Finally, anti-forgery measures constantly need to be updated because parties have great incentives to create fake documents.
Another security shortcoming of centralized IdM systems is that they rely on registries to contain all their data. Registries are problematic because they have a single point of failure. If one registry is compromised, an entire verification system can be undone. For instance, if SSNs became public, the SSN would become worthless; the value is in the secrecy.
Equally significant is the possibility of function creep, which can happen when a user loses control of their identification. SSNs, for example, were designed for a single purpose: the provisioning of social security benefits. Now, SSNs serve as a ubiquitous government identifier that is “now used far beyond its original purpose.” This is problematic because SSNs contain “no authenticating information” and can easily be forged. It’s not just governments, however, that allow function creep in centralized IdM systems. This happens for privately managed identity systems as well, as the Facebook hack showed.
The Alternatives: Individualistic and Federated IdM Models
Another type of IdM system is an individualistic or “user-centric” system. The goal of these systems is to allow the user to have “full control of all the transactions involving [their] identity” by requiring a user’s explicit approval of how their identity data is released and shared. Unlike those in “centralized” schemes, these types of identification do not grant any inherent rights. Instead, they give individuals the ability to define, manage, and prove their own identity.
To date, technical hurdles have prevented the widespread adoption of these “user-centric” systems. Governments and private companies alike have proposed using blockchain to create IdM systems that allow individuals to access their own data “without the need of constant recourse to a third-party intermediary to validate such data or identity.” There is hope that blockchain can provide the technical support to create an “individualist” IdM system that is both secure and privacy-friendly. Still, these efforts are in their infancy.
The last major type of IdM system is a federated model. Federated IdM systems require a high degree of cooperation between identity providers and service providers; the benefit is single sign on (SSO) capabilities whereby a user can use their credentials from one site to access other sites. This is similar to the Facebook model of “identity.” The lynchpin of any such system, however, is who the “trusted external party,” who acts as the verifier, is. The risk is that these systems lack transparency, meaning users might not know how their data is used.
Using Facebook to verify identity online is quick and easy. Yet this system is inadequate. An individual’s ability to state, verify, and prove their digital identity will be “the key to survival,” particularly given how difficult it is to create trust in the digital space. Proving identity is a technical problem, but this technical problem is closely linked with an individual’s ability to act as a citizen, in person or online. Governments and corporations alike have recognized the importance of improved digital identity systems and have begun advocating for more standardized identity systems. Detractors of digital identification systems argue that an individual’s identity should not depend on the conferral of documents by a third party, and that relying on these types of documents is contrary to the idea that humans have inherent rights. They’ll then quickly point to examples of authoritarian governments who use identity tracking for evil purposes. These criticisms ignore the reality that proving identification is already an essential part of life and that many rights are only conferred when you have the proper identification. Further, these criticisms fail to recognize that superior identification systems will provide benefits that will accrue to society as a whole. They could be used to record vaccination status, fight identity fraud, or even to create taxation systems based on consumption.
Identification and identity are closely linked. As we transition towards even more digital services, taking steps to ensure that we have control over our digital identity will be more than a technology or privacy problem. Our ability to have and control our identity will continue to be a key driver of social and economic mobility.
 In this context, authentication is the ability to prove that a user is who they say they are, and an authorization function shows that the user has the rights to do what they’re asking to do.
 Function creep is when a piece of information or technology is used for more purposes than it was originally intended.
Henry Rittenberg is a 2nd year student in Northwestern’s JD-MBA program.