nife overhead, a young girl breaks free of her father’s grasp and darts between shadows in the chilly half-moon streets of post-soviet Moldova. Shivering behind trash bins, an old lady approaches. Who are you?
A homeless man knuckles a pen, hovering over papers to apply for food stamps. A tear drops and blurs the signature line. Who are you?
The screen flickers at a mother seeking online courseware, prompting username, password, email, and phone number. Who are you?
According to the World Identity Network, one billion people have no formal identity. Without a way to identify who they are, the bureaucracies of modern life stall, sputter, and spin—incapable of providing essential services like healthcare or education to people in the metaphorical borderlands, neither dead nor alive in their accounting spreadsheets. These invisible peoples are stifled, unable to take out loans, vote for their leaders, travel, secure housing, apply for jobs, save in bank accounts, enroll for school—in short, to participate in the basic functions of economic, political, social, and legal life.
These are fundamental human rights promised by one hundred and sixty-eight countries around the world—the closest we’ve ever come as a global community to near universal consensus. A woman whose identity is through her father is not free. A child who does not have the papers to enroll in school is not free. An overworked and underpaid shadow worker with no legal recourse against abuse is not free. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we must solve three key challenges in identity: confusing design, fragmented technology, and abusive politics. Step zero: a radically accessible, distributed, ethical infrastructure for identity.
Problem one: the current discourse around identity is impenetrable.
What is identity and why does it matter? As Juliet famously mused of Romeo, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Contrary to the world she yearns for, Romeo’s essence is tied to his family lineage: the Montagues. Who you were was who your family was. Any good Victorian novel opens with a long monologue describing the elaborate family tree behind the main protagonist. No family; no identity. Aristotle emphasized the power of a name by recommending orators to appeal to one’s name as a form of persuasion: Oh Braveheart, where is your bravery? Oh beautiful Pearl, sparkle! A name signaled your nature; your essence. In that respect, identity is profoundly philosophical: who are you? A name, a biography, a list of qualifications, an energy, a job title, a social security number?
Today, identity is a deeply bureaucratic, administrative accounting headache. A glorified roll-call to keep tabs on who’s who. People who talk about identity are ensnared in ugly technical jargon: claims and identity providers, certificates and authentication protocols, trusted networks and acronyms like IAM, OAM, OAuth, DID, DPKI, and DIF. In short, the whole industry is premised on creating verifiable pathways for claims about who you are.
Analog or digital, the realm of identity has become a field of technical expertise. For those who exist in ledgers: who controls your credit scores, transcripts, drivers’ licenses, social media, birth certificates? Left to the hands of experts, we drain our imaginations and stilt our capacity to participate in accounting for ourselves and each other.
Problem two: the architects of the internet protocols—like http, www, ftp—did not bake identity into the fundamental fabric of the internet.
At first, this left every internet company to roll their own system for authenticating and permissioning online experiences: every website and their website’s cat required users to register a wholly new identity on their platform. Please enter your username, password, and email, ma’am. Various proxies were developed to prevent duplicate account creation: please enter your phone number, email, social security number, credit card. At best, this data is encrypted to be hacked at a later date. When everyone rolls their own identity solution, no one is a specialist, leading to a vast web of insecure and poorly managed credentials. Every now and then, malicious actors reach in and grab what they would like—as in the Equifax breach. Eventually, some savvy tech companies sought to unify these standards. Facebook created single-sign-on services, allowing you to login to third party apps like Farmville, Tinder, and Fitness apps using your Facebook identity—which provided the added side benefit of proving the authenticity of your identity based on the robustness of your social network.
The FTC just won their largest settlement ever against the social network for abusing its role as an identity provider. Facebook told their users they needed their personal phone number as a step in two-factor-authentication (another work-around for the lack of an identity layer in the internet). What they didn’t tell users: they lumped this identifying info into the heap of other personally identifiable data they were shuttling to other third-party apps. (Facebook seems to be the bad apple leading the pack: just the other day, Twitter revealed they also used phone numbers and emails of users who had opted into two-factor authentication to serve targeted ads for profit.)
The Equifax, Aadhaar, and Cambridge Analytica scandals echo through recent memory. In the early 2000s, Microsoft attempted to be the unified identity infrastructure through Passport—and they notably failed, with one of the projects leads, Kim Cameron, publishing the famous “Laws of Identity” closure, remarking: “The Internet was built without a way to know who and what you are connecting to… if we do nothing, we will face rapidly proliferating episodes of theft and deception which will cumulatively erode public trust in the Internet.” One of Cameron’s fundamental laws: users of identity must be in control of their identity, or the system will inevitably lose their trust and crumble. That is, the challenges of identity have deeper roots than just technology.
Problem three: identity is not a simple accounting procedure—identity management is waterlogged through history by the overlapping waves of power.
The Romans conquered foreign lands and, as a matter of official policy and strategy, ruthlessly translated names, books, into their native tongue. Western expansionists washed away the native identities of pre-Columbus Americans, forcing kin of tribes to pick their new, English identities out of a name hat—sometimes literally. Jack. Barbara. Joseph. British colonists pioneered new techniques in census-taking, slicing and labeling swaths of India by ethnic lineage. Nazis developed punch-card systems to track the ethnicity of moving populations. These top-down identity managers imposed insidious translations of whole peoples, identities, cultures.
Today, the Myanmar government erase records of Rohingya peoples, thousands of Uyghur family members disappear in Xinjiang, China, and innumerable people labor in migratory shadowlands across the world in return for low-pay and abuse. When identities are erased, people become invisible. Invisible, frustrated authorities and advocates are no match against the one hundred and fifty billion dollar industry channeling millions into the seams of human trafficking.
In a different but parallel vein, Facebook can’t be trusted as a universal identity provider. At a time when the U.S. government is attempting to put back doors into encryption, compromising privacy rights in the name of national security and expanding dragnet surveillance—governments are not good stewards of identity either in terms of winning over the trust of people, especially those vulnerable to abuse.
Dr. Dahan, co-founder of the World Identity Network, conjured an anecdote of an aid worker harvesting biometric data—which, inevitably, will be stored in a shoddy and poorly secured database—from a refugee in exchange for food and water: “We are on the cusp of something critical for humanity. The risk of an Orwellian system became too obvious to be ignored. As a global community, we need to redefine identity.”
The problem isn’t necessarily that governments are evil. Rather, that dangling mechanisms that can be abused through politics will. This is the tragedy of the symbols—when it comes to value symbols like votes, dollars, or identity, not only can they be corrupted, they will be corrupted if anyone is left in charge of them. Like how we hand monetary policy over to an independent federal reserve—as a restraint against the politician’s temptation to lower unemployment at the cost of rampant inflation—so too must we create infrastructures which transcend the petty political interests in erasing peoples and denying them permission to exist.
The long-standing utopian promise of technology was to liberate us from our daily burdens, empowering humanity to achieve total freedom. If we so desired, we could be a baker in the morning, fisher in the afternoon, and an artist in the evening. But, each wave of technological innovation seems only to gild that hollowing promise. The news regularly reports the latest breakthroughs available to the tech-haves: dragnet surveillance, mass misinformation campaigns, genetic experimentation, degrading deepfakes of women and algorithmic criminal justice decisions. Every day, we wake to new software versions seamlessly downloaded across each of our devices, steadily streaming the latest decisions of developers and tech executives to our home screens and notification bars. We become passive consumers, letting our phones shape our menu of friends, autoplay one more YouTube video, push recommended news to our attention, and distract us from ourselves and our loved ones. Our identity is increasingly defined by an evolving digital fingerprint none of us fully understand. We’ve come to accept as normal this flow of change and disruption as inevitable, natural, and ultimately good. Yet, the existing change and disruption is primarily driven by the inherent “good” of maximum engagement—seldom do our devices ask us what our goals and ambitions are.
Our identity is increasingly defined by an evolving digital fingerprint none of us fully understand. We’ve come to accept as normal this flow of change and disruption as inevitable, natural, and ultimately good. Yet, the existing change and disruption is primarily driven by the inherent “good” of maximum engagement—seldom do our devices ask us what our goals and ambitions are.
When was the last time your phone told you to turn itself off because you were spending too much time on it?
We must reject our current trajectory and reclaim the conviviality of our identity—the philosopher Ivan Illich’s long-lost argument that each of us should be in the driver's seat for deciding the purpose of our technological tools. Rather than assuming that technology can “know us better than we know ourselves,” convivial tools asks us what we want to accomplish in our life, then facilitate the flourishing we decided. A convivial tool is one that doesn’t buzz, beep, scream, and thrash when you turn it off for good because you no longer need it.
Convivial tools are open, accessible, and simple. They transform the pre-ordained uses baked into our everyday blackboxes into Lego blocks that empower us to scheme, build, and lead lives of our own designs. Like paintbrushes, scissors, and language itself, hammers are convivial because they do not demand to be used in a particular way—how you use a hammer is up to you, be it to smash a box, build an orphanage, repair a hospital, escape a prison, or scaffold a city! Conviviality in a tool is negated the moment we are degraded to the status of mere consumer, passively accepting the plans of designers and coders in distant lands.
Billions of people around the world have simply been told who they are—or are not—by systems they had little say in. They are consumers of their identity. Today, identity is a technology poised on the precipice of conviviality. But, is this possible? Yes.
Over the past decade, remarkable progress has been made, particularly around the concept of “self-sovereign identity” which takes advantage of the finer points of blockchain to put users in control of their identities and decide at a granular level which information is revealed and to whom. Yes, tell the bouncer I am at least 21, but do not share with him my birthdate or home address. Yes, verify for my employer that I’m over 16 and I have a high school diploma. No, do not share my bank account balance with my current landlord, only share that I have enough in my account to pay rent.
Unfortunately, the same three problems remain. Identity is confusing, but “self-sovereign identity” is an even larger cranial boondoggle—so much so even the leading experts have a hard time communicating what that term means and dispelling the most commonly assumed myths about its definition, much less creating ways for both eight and eighty-year-olds to understand and use in their everyday life.
An impressive array of technological solutions like Civic, ID.me, and uPort have emerged, but the same challenge of fragmented siloes remains: how do you get different identity ecosystems and ledgers to talk to one another in a secure, safe way? The Sovrin Foundation, in conjunction with the Government of British Columbia, and Hyperledger Indy developers, have worked tirelessly to open-source the critical building blocks to make interoperability between systems feasible through the Hyperledger Aries project. The technology necessary to liberate identity for people around the world is rapidly maturing—but, how do we tackle the politics behind identity, ensuring that whatever systems are adopted work not only today, but ten, twenty, a hundred years from now? The key catalyst: libraries.
Libraries are critical for championing a society where knowledge is open, accessible, and flourishing. Often overlooked are the evolving preconditions, infrastructure, and tools necessary to cultivate such a world. Identity is a critical prerequisite. As Jason Griffey, an affiliate at Harvard’s MetaLab and one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries, argues: Libraries—“by virtue of their position in the community, their values, and their deep experience in making information openly available while still protecting the interests of their users—are uniquely situated to take the lead in re-decentralizing the Internet.” That means advocating for computer literacy, supporting peer-to-peer communication networks like Tor, and empowering people to take ownership of their identity is more important than ever.
We’ve seen remarkable strides over the past decade in the decentralized identity space, and the opportunity for libraries to be ethical and dynamic leaders here is incredibly energizing. While the standards, protocols, and implementations are nearing maturity, shared identity infrastructures need to be open, free, and unowned—and a strong, distributed social institution to ceaselessly advocate for these underlying values. Even further, consortiums of libraries have a profound potential to operate as a crucial piece of the identity metasystem through physical access-points, a robust network of validation nodes, and fertile norms for a sustainable governance backbone that constitutionally serves and is collectively owned by users. Libraries are distributed, public-bound, and exist to make resources and knowledge discoverable, accessible, and useful. Identity needs convivial infrastructure—and libraries are fundamentally convivial institutions. They do not prescribe what you should use them for, rather, libraries provide essential Legos for anyone, anywhere to construct a life.
As NYU professor Klinenberg eloquently reflects in his latest book, libraries bestow anyone who walks through their doors with a certain sense of nobility, of dignity—they are the original, unabashed palaces for the people. Imagine a world where anyone, anywhere can walk to their nearest branch with a universal library card and equip themselves with an easy to use portfolio of identities for checking out books and upskilling or applying for scholarships, jobs, financial assistance, and more. Where anyone can construct a sense of self, an identity.
Trekking thousands of miles through shadows, mud, and sludge, an eminent woman was asked: now that you are free, what would you like to be called? That woman was Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman was, like most heroes, ahead of her times. Names are important, now it’s time to let the world name itself.