Challenging the boundaries of digital identity

Published on the 14/06/2019 | Written by Jonathan Cotton


In the age of identity theft, deep fakes and endless security breaches, proving you’re you – and keeping your data private – is new Catch 22…

In 2019 it very much seems as if our digital identities, and the data attached to them, are up for grabs. Poorly understood by most, yet drawing from deeply held convictions around privacy and security, in 2019 identity data is well and truly a contested domain.

It’s also a prize increasingly sought after by businesses and governments looking for the means to meet their ends. Governments around the world – including both New Zealand and Australia – have either rolled out or are testing official digital ID programs currently. Malaysia is in the process of rolling out its digital ID project to introduce biometric IDs for its more than 32 million citizens.

That makes sense. The McKinsey Global Institute recently revealed that digital identity programs are among the top key drivers of growth in both mature and emerging economies. But while governments may be willing, the populace can be hesitant to follow. As Australia’s long running My Health Record opt-out mismanagement shows, even when there’s a fairly clear value proposition, people are suspicious – if inconsistent – about who they trust their personal information with.

“When it comes to checking citizen’s Facebook pages for dodgy behaviour, the government might be a little late to the game: employers have been doing it for years.”

A recent survey from Digital Identity New Zealand (DINZ) found 79 percent of New Zealanders ‘concerned about the protection of their identity and use of personal data by organisations’.

“Kiwis are seeking greater transparency and control,” says Andrew Weaver, executive director of DINZ, “however seven out of 10 say it’s currently too hard to protect their identity and data online.

“There is generally low understanding around how to protect personal information and data by New Zealanders and a general perception by 68 percent of those surveyed that doing so is difficult right now. Education and knowledge around personal identity is a key need for New Zealanders.”

But while government organised ID programs offer a clear target for suspicious data-sovereigns, more difficult to resist are the efforts to locate and collate the more free form data that exists about each of us online.

That’s the kind of data the US Government is increasingly invested in accessing. The US State Department has just announced that applicants for US Visas–- some 15 million people per annum – will be required to share their social media pages including Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Instagram, to complete the Visa application process.

It’s not an entirely new move, but was, until recently, restricted to those travelling from countries with links to terrorist activity. The new rules will apply to everyone, both immigrants and non-immigrants, and will include those travelling for business.

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveller and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening,” says State Department.

“We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

It’s a significant new step, but when it comes to checking citizen’s Facebook pages for dodgy behaviour, the government might be a little late to the game: Employers have been doing it for years.

In fact, there’s a significant and growing industry around just such activity. Led mainly by companies in North America, the employment screening software market is growing steadily worldwide, with rapid growth expected across Europe and APAC.

AllyO, an ‘end-to-end AI recruiting software’, for example, has just raised US$45m for its hiring platform. That service integrates with online job boards, career websites and social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, as well as human resource suites, such as SAP SuccessFactors, in its screening process.

And with AI playing an increasing significant part in recruiting procedures – think algorithms that analyse body language and tone of voice during interviews – the future of hiring is only set to get scarier.

So what does all this mean for the end user?

Well, it’s a tangle.

When it comes to personal data, we seem to want it all: We hope that our personal data is being kept perfectly private, yet we also want it shared with those companies we trust. We don’t want it shared between companies without our consent, but we want it shared when it suits us – and we want that process to occur seamlessly. We want significant limits on what the government collects about us, but we’d also like better, more streamlined public services that are tailored to our specific needs and wants. Social media? We voluntarily commit huge quantities of data to the public, but as soon as governments and employers take interest, we feel that information should be off limits. Somehow.

As consumers, citizens and internet users this ambivalence is doing us no favours. And as our lives in the material world increasingly converge with the digital, something’s got to give.

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