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Legal aspects of global vs. sector-specific identification numbers  Title:
 ID-numbers: Symbols of Bureaucracy


ID numbers from a social perspective



In this chapter it is shown, that ID numbers, their functions and impact on society can be understood in different ways by using different theories established in social science. An analysis is presented, based on social systems theories. This allows for a more general analysis of the introduction and functions of ID numbers and the resulting consequences of their use in societies.  The Weberian bureaucracy theory allows the detailed analysis of the introduction and use of ID numbers in the context of the administration of states. Though some findings can be commonly made, using in both angles theoretical backgrounds, they have a different focus and in combination make a better coverage of relevant social aspects possible.


Functions, benefits and drawbacks of ID numbers



ID numbers fulfil mainly three functions. They are used:  


  1. For naming an object 

  2. As (context specific) identifiers (“this but not that”) and 

  3. As an address for (context specific) operations or communications. 


This contribution looks into these functions of ID numbers in society, using social systems theories as a theoretical background. In this context the relationship between ID numbers and organisations is important.

The difference between names, identifiers and addresses

Names are used as symbols to describe “objects”, attributes and relations. Names start to be relevant when appearing in communications. Communication is understood as a logical representation of the world using languages, but reaches farther than a pure naming and description of objects and persons. Language allows naming an artefact, for example a “tree” or an “elbow”. But in addition a status of an object or a relationship between multiple objects can be described. Typically such a status does not have a body. Examples for this are “to fall in love” or relationships such as “she/he is mother/father of someone”. Names get their meaning in the eyes of an observer as they are set in a specific context. Observing in the meaning of cognition, or more specific: of re-cognition. Even in a given context names are not necessarily unique. One example for this is a tree that is for sure not unique in the context of a forest.


Names turn into identifiers when they are used in a communicational context to discriminate objects, which could also be persons. For example an apple can be discriminated from a pear, and through this discrimination the apple in front of an observer can be identified. In this context two requirements have to be met: At first the difference between the identified object and the reference object needs to be stable. Simply put: An apple must not turn into a pear. The second requirement addresses the participants in the communication. They have to remember the difference between different objects with respect to the relevant aspects or a relevant perspective of observation. Names and identifiers always must be used in the same way by participants of communications. Or simply put: An apple has to be named and identified always as an apple, not as a pear. In this case a specific identifier has a comparable meaning for all participants of communications.  


Certain identifiers are always used in the context of a specific operation, for example as a target for the operation. If this identifier in addition to an object also identifies a specific  operation, we can speak more precisely of an address. For specific operations specific addresses are used. They typically show a certain structure which is built up using an operation specific set of rules. As a result a license plate number or Cartesian coordinates are for example not usable as addresses instead of a URL in a web browser or an e-mail address. The set of rules for generating and using an address typically is set up by at least one organisation.


Described in a more general way addresses are always administered (generated, assigned and deleted or deactivated) by organisations. Organisations also take care to resolve potential address collisions to keep addresses unique in the particular scope of the operation. In the context of persons, the State with its executive monopoly ensures addressability for governmental, private-sector or interactional (citizen to citizen) operations. Addressability today covers persons, families, organisations and objects in the context of communication techniques. Addressability is not possible without organisations.  

To sum up: a name is used to construct objects. An identifier names (and constructs) a specific object in a particular communicational context in difference to other objects. An address identifies an object in the context of a specific operation. Addresses do not only identify objects in the context of the operation, but also the operation itself in difference to other operations.  


Names, identifiers, addresses and ID numbers

ID numbers can fulfil all three described functions. They can be used as names for a data set or a number of data sets in a database. They can be used as identifiers if they name a data set or dataset linked to one person uniquely for example in the context of an administrative procedure. ID numbers also can be used as addresses. As shown in the country reports, the rules applied to constitute ID numbers in many cases identify the operation (e.g. administration of income tax, social insurance etc.) in which these particular ID numbers are used. 


We now want to take a look at the use of ID numbers to get a more precise understanding of their use. Social scientists distinguish three types of social systems:


  1. Interactional systems (types of communities in which members are not subject to particular rules, but nevertheless schemes apply; examples are spontaneous meetings as neighbours, spontaneous encounters)

  2. Organisational systems (characteristics are membership and effective production of decisions; examples are public bodies, institutes and companies)

  3. Functional systems (economy, law, politics and science as “self-conducted” communication systems)


Social systems theories makes it possible to distinguish between organisations and society. So one can analyse the influence of organisations in and on society. The advantage of this perspective is that research results and findings can be used for any organisation, including public administrations. At the same time specific aspects such as the influence of bureaucracy in the public sector on the development and use of ID numbers or socio cultural aspects do not directly fit in social systems theories. For this reason these aspects are not covered in this chapter. They will be elaborated in the next chapter. 


Typically for interactional systems the first names and sometimes the surnames are used to name participants in communication, to identify and to address them. An example is the opening phrase: “Hello Peter, how are you?” In Germany and many other middle European countries such as UK and France, surnames in the medieval age in many cases evolved from the role of a person in society, especially from their job. Examples are Schneider (tailor), Fischer (fisherman), Meier (dairy-farmer) or Müller (miller). The job description as surname expressed the expectation of the society on a particular person bearing this name. This type of surnames is not an example of the use of names as identifiers only but also of addresses (including the function of the person in a local organisational context). 

In medieval times the hierarchy of the society was very stable, largely accepted by the people and changes in this hierarchy were relatively small and did not occur very often. People carried out the same jobs for generations. The structure of the medieval society was accepted as introduced by God and thus as logical. Together with an increasing functional differentiation starting at the end of the medieval age polycentric societies evolved, with many organisations “in it”. The autonomy of an individual became increasingly important in such societies; democracy offered a way in which citizens could select governments of their choice together with the corresponding political programme.  

With increased complexity of society traditional schemes to address individuals and organisations proved to be insufficient. As a result additional identifiers and addresses were introduced – in many cases ID numbers were used for this purpose as they are unique in a much larger context compared to names. This is an important aspect in the context of machine supported operation and machine accessibility and addressability of individuals and organisations and related data (industrialisation of data processing). 


ID numbers are typically used in organisational systems, especially to identify and discriminate members and clients of the organisation. In addition to the examples of public or official ID numbers listed in this deliverable, also IP addresses, customer or vendor numbers issued by many enterprises and phone numbers can be listed. Other more specific examples for ID numbers are functional identifiers which are used especially in governmental institutions in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. They are used to describe functions within the organisation independent from the person holding the function at present. They are passed along to a successor in case the original holder of the function moves to another function or changes the organisation. Functional identifiers are also used to address the present function holder in processes and workflows within the organisation. In some cases they are used as naming part in functional e-mail addresses.  

Examples are the functional identifier of the authors of this article within ICPP: LD3.2 and LD10.2. LD stands for ICPP in the context of the public administration of the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany (LD is Landes-Datenschutzbeauftragter), 3 or 10 stands for the departments the authors work in and .2 is the forthcoming number of the authors in the corresponding departments. In this case the naming part of the e-mail addressees of both authors also is derived from the functional identifier: {LD32|LD102} In many cases this type of functional identifiers also maps to a job description independent of the person currently carrying the correspondent ID numbers.

Other examples for functional identifiers are certain phone numbers used for functions in organisations. Traditional examples are service or service desk numbers which in many cases use special prefixes (e.g. +800 or +180x etc.) and frequently are used by many people at the same time. 


ID numbers aim at identifying a person or organisation uniquely in the context of operations run by an organisation. In many cases ID numbers are introduced and used by governmental institutions. They allow due to their uniqueness linking up database entries, transactions or partial operations across data sources or borders of institutions.  


Potential benefits and drawbacks of ID numbers

Potential benefits mainly can be observed for organisations and their members. Relevant benefits are increased effectiveness in administration, processes and decision making and increased accessibility and quality of data. Clients of organisations also may have benefits for example convenience in case ID numbers are used to simplify communication e.g. by avoiding repeated input of the same basic data.  


Potential drawbacks can be observed mainly for clients of organisations in case linkability through ID numbers is used to create information asymmetry in favour of organisations. Information asymmetry may lead to market failure (so called lemon markets). In addition information asymmetry may be used by organisations to reduce the autonomy of the individuals in society and thus may result in a shift of the balance of power in favour of organisations.


From the perspective of citizens it is difficult to decide whether benefits or drawbacks are predominant. The reason may be that citizen are as well members of the state (as responsible citizen in a modern western democracy) as clients (when they have obligations towards governmental institutions e.g. to pay their tax or when they benefit from a service). While loss of autonomy on one hand increases obligations of citizens in their role as clients of the organisation (in this case the state) it may at the same time raise the benefit of the organisation and thus indirectly the benefit of citizens in their role as members of the state.  


Akerlof 1970

G. A. Akerlof, ‘The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 84 (3): 488–500, Aug. 1970. Download: 2.0.CO;2-6”>

Baecker 1999

D. Baecker, Organisation als System, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1999.

Hildebrandt, Gutwirth & De Hert 2005

M. Hildebrandt, S. Gutwirth & P. De Hert, FIDIS Deliverable D7.4: Implications of profiling practices on democracy and rule of law, Frankfurt a. M., September 2005.

Kieserling 2000

A. Kieserling, Kommunikation unter Anwesenden – Studien über Interaktionssysteme, Frankfurt am Main, 2000.

Leenes 2006

R. Leenes, FIDIS Deliverable D5.2b: ID-related Crime: Towards a Common Ground for Interdisciplinary Research, Frankfurt a.M., 2006.

Luhmann 2000

N. Luhmann, Organisation und Entscheidung, 1st Edition, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen/Wiesbaden 2000.

Luhmann 1997

N. Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 1st Edition, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1997.


Legal aspects of global vs. sector-specific identification numbers  fidis-wp13-del13_3_number_policies_final.sxw  ID-numbers: Symbols of Bureaucracy
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