We Need a Global Digital Identity Standard

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It’s the year 2035 and you’ve just gotten married. You’re going to hyphenate your last name with your spouse, to share that connection. This means an identity change that’s going to affect your paycheque, health card, insurance, drivers license, banking, credit cards, crypto accounts, online gaming profiles, social media handles and all those many logins for various digital services, including government identity for various services. In 2022, that’s a nightmare. In 2035, thanks to the Global Human Identity Standard (GHIS), you log in to your account using your preferred biometric, enter the surname change, tick the “update all services” box and you’re done. Over the next 24 hours all services you’ve signed into that require a name change are notified. Your updated identity is confirmed. All systems must comply to this standard. It’s globally recognised, almost. China, Iran, North Korea and Russia are hold-outs.

Wouldn’t that just be smashing? The push to have better standards around our digital identities is not new. It’s been an issue for years and in our machine-driven world, personal identity has become a complete and utter mess. To the point that it can cause a lot of stress for some people. Toss in the relative easiness of identity theft and you’ve really got a proper kerfuffle. It gets worse too. How Facebook sees you, versus Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and a myriad of other social media and digital products sees you varies as much as the shape of snowflakes in winter. Google tends to focus on geolocation as a core part of your identity whereas Facebook focuses more on your name. Neither of these approaches is wrong. But no approach is right either.

And whilst you might think it’s a fairly simple problem to solve for, its very complex. Not just within ones country of residence, but even at a local level and especially on a global scale. It can also have an impact on how people view their own sense of “self”. When we struggle across multiple platforms for log-ins and using the multitude of criteria for identifying the “self” that we see ourselves by, disruptions, such as after having a social media account hacked, can lead to a lot of stress. One woman who tried to get her Facebook account back after someone changed the name, even had her passport proof rejected. The machine didn’t accept it and there was no human in the loop to adjudicate.

And the passport system is a perfect example of how we can get to a global digital identity system. All countries around the world accept the global passport standard. It is of course, a paper system, but it is backed up by a digital system. The weakness of course is that key personal data isn’t really protected, but that’s not the requirement. That personal data; gender, date of birth, country of origin and citizenships, are needed by the government.

Technologies such as blockchain however, could make passports digital. We could extend that capability to include a passport (one that’s loaded on smartphones) as well as a core account that a person manages themselves. It could tie in health and medical records for the healthcare system, insurance, gender (which could also be changed at any time) and more. Including personal marketing data where each person chooses what information a brand can collect on them and use for re-marketing purposes.

While it is a simple idea, implementation isn’t easy. But it could be relatively so. A global digital identity system would make it easier to obtain work visas in other countries, help validate refugees from conflict zones faster, speed up passport renewals and updating government identification systems such as health cards and drivers licences. Medical records could be shared with specialists and surgeons and the healthcare systems would have a better holistic view of ones various medical predicaments.

If countries can agree on passport standards, then they should be able to agree on a global identity system. So what’s the hold up? Scaling, data security, the messiness of database systems that don’t play well together, citizen trust of such a technology and the hesitancy of many governments who barely understand the implications of such technologies. Such an innovation changes complex systems. When you add what is seemingly a simple idea to complex systems, the ripple effects can be profound. Often they’re not considered at all in advance and those who manage the system don’t like change and resistance causes frictions. Humans are weird.

Eventually, we’ll probably get there. Will blockchain be the answer? Maybe. It’s certainly viable, but blockchain has some problems with security still, the energy required to operate it and the issue of scaling across hundreds of countries and ensuring all systems can talk to each other. Other tools may become viable. Regulations on protecting personal data must also be well considered. That will take a long time.

There is little doubt that resolving such problems would benefit our increasingly connected global society and solve for a number of problems.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious