June 12, 2014

Dreaming about Digital Identities

This essay was published in the Novabase Design Team’s newsletter on June 2014


About 8 weeks ago, the web woke up to the news of the Heartbleed bug an internet wide security breach. Once the bug was discovered, it was quickly publicised and eventually patched by experts – however to completely safeguard oneself against Heartbleed, every internet user was required to change their password for every consumer web service they used! “Everybody knows that most passwords will remain unchanged” remarked a cyber security researcher and sparked a discussion on how passwords have become obsolete.

I have a login profile for every web and mobile service I use (eg: Facebook, Amazon, Snapchat) and I have a over a 100 unique passwords for each and every one of them. Changing each and every one of them felt like a monumental task. So while the community of cyber security experts debated on how best to eliminate passwords, as a designer I realised that passwords have been unusable for a long time now. Now there exist a number of password managers in the market, but with the the elimination of passwords I began to wonder what would take its place. I began to wonder about the notion of an online identity. Over the following paragraphs, I have drawn connections between seemingly unrelated things in an attempt to understand what an online identity could look like.

Now, identity in its entirety is a large and complex anthropological concept. However from a technological perspective, we can constrain our discussion of identity to authentication and tastes. As the web evolves into a homogenous layer between the physical world and digital services, I imagine the ideal digital identity would allow users to effortlessly authenticate themselves and interact with a digital world that is tailored to them. The ideal digital identity would facilitate you to be who are, represent you in the digital world and ultimately be an extension of your self in the digital world.

Apple, the Apple logo and iPhone are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries."

Currently some companies are beginning to explore this space. Last year, Apple introduced a fingerprint sensor in their latest line of iOS devices using a technology called Touch ID. In its current form it is primarily used to unlock the phone. However, this year, it was announced that PayPal has plans to integrate with Touch ID to finally create a digitally secure money transfer system. In that sense, Touch ID by Apple is definitely capable of  addressing the opportunities present in creating a digital identity by merging hardware sensors and software architecture.

Twitter is another great example of a nascent digital identity. Being a public and transparent platform, twitter profiles are widely used by digital natives to flesh out an identity with personality. Tweets contain bite sized opinions spread using a global microphone. But probably the most interesting example of digital identity today is Facebook. With the latest redesign and the Timeline feature, Facebook profiles are so much more than the ‘Facebook wall’. Facebook profiles contain information ranging from our birthday and our hometown to our favourite football teams. My facebook friend list is a comprehensive list of every person I know, including friends from high school and the people I briefly met on vacation last winter. My facebook groups are digital representations of my local networks and I use facebook pages to stay abreast of news from a wide variety sources from cafes to political parties and every brand in between. Today’s Facebook profiles read like a story about our lives.

Facebook is well aware of the value of their network to identify individuals. “Facebook Connect makes it easier for you to take your online identity with you all over the Web…” is a direct quote from Mark Zuckerberg when it launched the service in 2008. Today Facebook Connect is the preferred online credentials system at a wide variety of digital services like Airbnb, CNN Online and Tinder. Twitter has a similar system with an implementation of OAuth and Google uses OpenID Connect. As these corporation owned identities proliferate the web, we have to ask the question if Facebook should be provider of our digital identities. Apart from the fact that Facebook’s loyalties clearly lie with its advertising clientele, it also falls under the judicial jurisdiction of the American government (read NSA).

Back in my high school, I knew a student named Raj(name changed). He was a couple of years younger than me in school so I didn’t really know him very well but he was on my Facebook of course. Last year, Raj passed away at the very young age of 21. His death came as a shock to everyone around him including his family. I learnt about his passing through Facebook (school alumni group) and when I landed on his profile I was amazed at what I found. Hundreds of friends and family from all over the world had written notes to Raj expressing their grief and shock. As I perused through them, it struck me that his closest connections were using his Facebook profile to somehow reach him. The language of the posts were remarkably conversational or written as if he were still alive. It reminded me of eulogies people make at funeral ceremonies.This phenomenon repeated itself on his birthday with friends wishing him. Somehow, Raj’s Facebook profile had grown from profile page to something much more. Almost as if his profile was a container of him and the only reliable way to reach him. Almost as if his profile was a digital extension of the self, one that outlives the physical life.

In conclusion, I imagine the ideal online identity would be much more than a digital passport or BI. I imagine that it would blend hardware and software services to allow us to identify and express who we are. I imagine it would outlive our physical life. But I don’t have all the answers.

As the internet proliferates into every object of our life with the Internet of Things and Cloud computing, I feel that the need for a homogenous online identity issued by transparent organisation is increasingly clear. As designers and developers, as decision makers working in the technology industry, I think it’s our imperative to think about the future of our digital identity and shape it as we see best.


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