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The price for identity : how much is too much?

The price for identity : how much is too much?

Society has always been fascinated by the concept of identity, of being able to acquire and manipulate it, and as a result confuse and fool the unsuspecting. But how protective is the consumer of their identity and how willing are they to sacrifice it?

Why would we willingly choose to surrender our identity to gain access to the latest shiny gadget? Or, why would we tolerate a society that covertly records our faces so that retailers can direct us to items we may wish to purchase? When did we so readily give up on our privacy and a right to anonymity to immerse deeply into the consumer market? We may not know it, but we likely do it every single day.

Society has always been fascinated by the concept of identity, of being able to acquire and manipulate it, and as a result confuse and fool the unsuspecting. Indeed, the flexibility and manoeuvrability of identity continues to inspire creative minds, not only in literature and the media but also those intent on nefarious purposes and it has become a commodity for sale.

There can be no doubt that some of the indicators of our identity are more readily accepted and more familiar than others, and many have stood an incredible test of time. However, current pressures on data security, privacy laws and the almost insatiable fervour to capture information about identity mean that this has become a challenging and fluid environment where our wish to protect our identity comes into daily conflict with society’s demands for us to reveal and relinquish it.

Identification is a natural and necessary process for many forms of social interaction, from productive enterprise to personal security, but only relatively recently has it become the subject of articulated government policies.An increasingly security-conscious society demands higher standards from our technologies and our underpinning scientific robustness. Today, this is most commonly achieved through biometric analysis and the matching of source, intelligence or crime scene data with stored reference data.

But how protective is the consumer of their identity and how willing are they to sacrifice it? To gain access to the latest mobile phone, for example, one may have to surrender a fingerprint. Should the consumer be okay with that? Do they know where that fingerprint goes to? How it is stored? Who can access it? Why they might want to use it?

Given that identity has a value not only to the rightful holder but also to the criminal acquirer, it is inevitable that a black market culture will thrive unless prevention and strong gatekeeping also become a focus. CIFAS, the UK’s fraud prevention service, has reported that identity theft and identity fraud are among the fastest rising crimes of modern times. With a 5% rise between 2013 and 2014, over 40% of all criminal cases of fraud relate to misappropriation of identity.

The commercial answer to increasing security is for the customer to give up their biometrics, but that introduces an element of vulnerability that has largely either been ignored or poorly understood to date. A growing global sense of fear and self-protection has catalysed the evolution of, and dependence on, biometrics in all aspects of our daily lives such that it is now forms a very lucrative, buoyant and therefore highly competitive, commercial market. In recent years it has started to move away from the traditional approach of utilising a token or something that is known (eg a PIN number), and towards the exploitation of biometrics, which are viewed as offering greater security and confidence. A recent survey of CIFAS members revealed that over two-thirds claimed to own an electronic device with a biometric security step installed, showing a dramatic rise from the previous year where only half responded that their mobiles, laptops, tablets etc required biometric (usually face or fingerprint) access mechanisms. If your PIN number or your card are stolen then a new one can be issued – how could you be issued with a new biometric?

The research firm Acuity claimed that 2014 was a “bumper year” for the biometrics industry in the run up to Christmas as shoppers capitalised on mobile payment facilities. Indeed, research by Visa Europe indicated that three-quarters of 16–24 year olds in the UK would feel comfortable using fingerprint scans, facial recognition or retinal scanning in place of traditional passcodes to overcome the ‘inconvenience’ of having to remember information. This was supported by a recent CSC survey where it was pointed out that the willingness to release security is not a ‘generational’ issue but one of ‘age’ and so this must remain an issue for the industry as the views of a population change with time.

Identity is a cornerstone of our modern society, and its influence as a central tenet of our culture is only going to increase. It influences our feeling of safety and security, and exposes our feelings of vulnerability. Our apparent willingness to part with it for the latest shiny trinket should be of major concern to all involved — once a biometric becomes a viable route for identity fraud, then the opportunity to recover it and secure it becomes exponentially more challenging. When this is extrapolated to multimodal biometrics then the loss of identity into the hands of the fraudster will result in serious and possibly irreversible issues for law-abiding citizens.

But it is not all bad is it? Whilst we need to protect our identity, so we are also able to play with it and to find ways to make our lives easier and more productive. As in life, everything in the cyberworld needs to be in balance – the excitement of what is to come against ensuring we are safe while we do it.

21st Century Stats


Originally launched: 1999.

Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

Contributors: 70 contributors including futurists, engineers, teachers, writers, 23 doctors and 7 professors.

Created by: Clifford White.

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