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D2.1: Inventory of Topics and Clusters

The Concepts of Identity and Identification  Title:
 The (self-) Identity concept


The Identity and Identification Issues

Why is it important to understand the concept of identity? 

Issues Concerning Many Facets of People’s Life

Identity is not a topic only reserved to a small group of specialists. It intervenes very concretely in many facets of people’s lives: their geographical mobility (dealing with the crossing of territories); their private life (dealing with their hobbies, romance, etc.); their family life (dealing with their marital status, their family structure); their social life (dealing with their friends, and their affiliation to groups); their work life (dealing with role, position, responsibility) and the way they conduct business activities (dealing with contracting, reputation, …); their life as a citizen (dealing with voting, and participation in communal life); their biological life (dealing with healthcare); their life as a customer (dealing with shopping and transaction); etc. Figure 1 helps to illustrate this multiple nature. 


Figure An example of the multiple facets of identity
(schema: Alice’s Partial Identities (Clauß and Köhntopp, 2001), with the permission of Marit Hansen)


In practice, in each of these different portions of life, identity and identification issues can occur, and take different forms. 

First, identity and identification issues can relate to the legitimacy of acting because of the affiliation to a particular group (country, company, social group) or given the prerogatives (authority, right, etc.) attached to a particular accreditation (role in an organisation, diploma, recognised competence, bank account, etc.). For instance, citizenship can give you access to some social benefits or the right to travel and work in another country; a diploma or other such proof of competence can allow you to apply for a job position and later to exercise this profession; friendship opens up the possibility of asking for “and obtaining” free service from another person (the friend). Consequently, as individuals take on many different roles in the course of their life, different sets of characteristics, corresponding to these different roles, are used to represent their identity. Each of these “partial identity” includes both inherited “timeless” characteristics (such as nationality, gender, etc) and characteristics that they have acquired during their life (such diploma, competences, etc), or that they have been assigned or issued to fulfil this role (such as a position, some sort of authority, etc). 

Another dimension is related to effectively proving (with different levels of reliability) that a person has indeed the affiliation or accreditation that they claim and that is required for the action. Examples of such elements can include an ID (passport, or business card), a key (proving to a technical infrastructure the right to access), a “parchment” (diploma), a social or competency clue (reflected in the attire or in the conversation), or a recommendation (for instance from an acquaintance). 

Other aspects are related to the (partial) access of this identity information by others, their usage of this information and the question of the control (see for instance (Claessens et al., 2003) for some discussions on anonymity control). The management of access to the information and of the control (by the person, by institutional bodies, by organisations, by commercial entities) is critical since it relates to the liberty of action of a person. For instance, the disclosure of information about the political opinion of a person (this person can be an activist or a Unionist) can seriously impact on the degrees of liberty of action of this person (in “the worse case” the person may be sent to prison, in other cases it may put the continued employment of this person in jeopardy). In particular, making the information too transparent can cause people to not act at all for fear of retaliation (from other people, from groups or from society). This can have negative consequences (people may fear denouncing unacceptable situations) or positive ones (preventing people from hiding revenues and paying less taxes or making people liable for a damage that they are responsible for). A more mundane aspect relates to the shameless exploitation of this information by third parties who consider it as a public resource. Spamming (direct marketing of mass emailing) represents one of the most irritating consequences of this.

Identity, Identification and the Information Society

Identity concepts and issues existed well before the advent of the information society. For instance, even before information technologies were available, people have had their privacy threatened, had to manage their participation in social circles, had to deal with the concept of national identity to cross frontiers, or had their profile used (sold, exploited, etc) by direct-marketing companies. 

Still, the digitalisation of society, by augmenting the possibilities of Identity mechanisms and by opening new (digital) territories (going well beyond the imagination of Science-fiction novelists or even the wildest dreams of governments wishing to have a tighter control on their citizens), has considerably increased the importance of these topics and the associated risks and benefits. For example, research has been conducted on the implantation of RFID chips under people’s skin, blurring the frontier between the real and the digital territories (Beslay and Hakala, 2005), and a system for automated systematic facial recognition has been installed in the streets of Tampa, Florida. With sometimes a harsh return to reality: some people are strongly against the use of identification tags for humans (Michael Kanellos, 2004); and the face recognition system set in place in Tampa has thus far failed to identify one single crook or pervert listed in the department’s photographic database, while falsely identifying ‘a large number’ of innocent citizens (Greene, 2002). 

Currently more relevant to a large number of people is the variety of nuisances (spam, virus, spyware, phishing) which has invaded people’s digital life, entering their mailboxes, destroying files, spying on online activities and trying to mislead them. In some cases this has even caused people to question the value that they are really getting out of these new digital territories (O’Brien and Hansell, 2004).

The information society has not invented many of the issues related to Identity that exist now, but it has significantly increased their importance. This change requires reassessment of the benefits and costs related to Identity issues, and for a renewal of the solutions which address them. 

A high priority during this analysis is clearly the protection of freedom (free speech without fear of retaliation, privacy protection of opinion or medical information), enforcement of responsibility (liability and responsibility of your actions), human and society capability enhancing (the digital mechanisms help to reduce coordination and transaction costs, as well as to leverage the value of the social process). 


The Concepts of Identity and Identification  fidis-wp2-del2.1_Inventory_of_topics_and_clusters_03.sxw  The (self-) Identity concept
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