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Bureaucracy in public organizations  Identification versus anonymity in e-government


Identity knowledge

In order to obtain certain services, the citizen has to reveal personal information about himself or herself, i.e., the citizen has to identify him or herself. Identity knowledge refers to the descriptive information that is connectable to an individual. (Marx, 2005) It is a bipolar continuum with identifiability at one extreme and anonymity at the other (Marx, 2001). Neither complete identifiability, nor complete anonymity can occur. When a person is completely identified or known, the most inner self of this person is known. This is, of course, impossible, just as complete anonymity is impossible. Although the word ‘anonymity’ evokes a different image, anonymity requires an audience of at least one person for one cannot be anonymous if there is no form of interaction and if no one is aware of the individual. (Marx, 1999) When a person is completely anonymous, he or she is unknown by everyone i.e., this person does not exist in the social world. So, both identifiability and anonymity are ideal types. 

Identity knowledge is fundamentally social; it only gains relevance in a social context. (Marx, 1999) There are degrees of identity knowledge, reflecting not only the amount of information known about an individual but also different types of information about persons for some information is considered to be more sensitive or private than other information. Marx (2005) distinguished five different types of identity information, each at a certain distance from the core identity of an individual. He portrays these five types of identity information as concentric circles around an individual (see figure 1).  


Figure : Concentric Circles of Information (Marx, 2005)

The outermost circle is that of individual information. This is automatically available information and includes any data or category which can be attached to an individual. Individual information varies from information that is relatively impersonal (e.g., gender, driving a particular type of car, living in this city, shopping in that supermarket) to that which is more personal (e.g., what is in your trolley at the supermarket or sitting in the urology waiting room at the hospital).

In contrast, private information is not automatically available. This type of information is unknown by others until it is communicated either by the individual himself or someone else. Private information can be attitudes, thoughts, or preferences that are not considered to be very personal (for example what sort of food or music you like) but categorize the individual. The social category can be determined by the individual (i.e., self-definition) or by others (as a result of technical profiling for example).

The next circle is that of sensitive information and it includes information that is very personal and it takes its significance from the fact that it is only revealed to those we trust and feel close to. The European Union’s Data Protection Directive defines sensitive data as those data involving information on race and ethnicity; political, philosophical, and religious beliefs; health; and sexual life.

Even closer to the individual is the unique identification. The unique identification of a person consists of various identity pegs, together forming a unique identity (i.e., only you have this particular combination) and answering the question “Who are you?” Elements that make up the individual’s uniqueness are, for example, name, birth at a particular place and time, place of residence, and social security number. Apart from these more traditional identifiers, the individual’s uniqueness can also incorporate biometric identifiers like fingerprinting, DNA, voice, retina, iris, or facial appearance along with a name or birth date.

Closest to the individual is the core identification. (Marx, 2005) The core identification identifies the core identity of an individual, i.e., the most inner person or the Self. The Self is a social being for it is shaped through the social environment, that is, social interactions and relations with others. It consists of multiple identities or multiple roles, derived from membership of various social groups together with a value and emotional significance attached to those groups. (Cooley, 1929; Goffman, 1959; Mead, 1967; Tajfel, 1981; Tajfel & Turner, 1979)

Identity knowledge thus consists of the amount and the type of personal information. When more information about an individual is available, this individual is more identifiable, hence indicating a shift towards identifiability on the identifiability-anoymity continuum. In addition, when the information of an individual is closer to the core identity, the individual is also more identifiable and this indicates a shift towards identifiability on the continuum too. 

Now that the amount of identity knowledge and the different types of identity knowledge have been explored, the identity knowledge capacity of a public organization will be addressed. Rule (1973) distinguished four criteria to measure the identity knowledge capacity of an individual organization. The first criterion is the size of the files held in an identity knowledge system, that is, the number of persons and items of information about them that can be stored. The second criterion is the centralization of those files. Highly centralized files make it possible to gather information on a person at any point in the system and then use that information at any other point in the system. Third, the speed of information flows which concerns the time necessary for information on subject populations to be gathered, transmitted, processed, and then used. The fourth and last criterion is the number of points of contact between the system and its subject population. This refers to the number of points in the life of a person that are available for the collection of information. When there are many of those points in a person’s life, the organization can maintain a constant and detailed connection between an individual and his or her record or file.  


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