Just what is ‘identity’?

July 9, 2008 at 7:52 pm Leave a comment

As a term that most of us find intuitively easy to define, it turns out that getting a precise and generally accepted definition of the term ‘identity’ is far from easy.

The first question of course is whether it’s even worth the effort to try and get a precise definition. I think the answer is ‘yes’ for several reasons.

First, identity involves personal information and people expect that government collects and holds their personal information in a secure manner with their privacy appropriately protected.

Secondly, people need to prove who they are many times during a day. While typically people only need to do that with government infrequently, for a government agency it is of critical everyday importance to have confidence in the identity of the person they are dealing with. For example, an agency needs to be sure that government services are being delivered to the right person. Another example is ensuring that the right person has access to their own personal information such as health records or tax records.

On the one hand, people want convenient access to their information and government services. On the other hand, government as a whole has to manage the identity-related risks and ensure that the taxpayer’s money is spent well.

Finally, consider this quote from a recent report by Sir James Crosby to the UK Government, “… those countries with the most effective ID assurance systems and infrastructure will enjoy economic and social advantage, and those without will miss an opportunity. There is a clear virtuous circle. The ease and confidence with which individuals can assert their identity improves economic efficiency and social cohesion…”.

Looking around, both in New Zealand and overseas, we saw that most of the focus on ‘digital identity’ and ‘user-centric identity’. Also, ‘identity management’ is typically defined in technology terms such as ‘authentication’ and ‘authorisation’. And yet, all of these still don’t answer the fundamental question of just what ‘identity’ is in the first place.

To help get us a better insight into the thinking of the academic world and the approaches taken in some other countries, we turned to Victoria University of Wellington. Professor Miriam Lips, with the help of her student Chiky Pang, has now completed her report Identity Management in Information Age Government (PDF, 557 KB) and we have published it on the e-government website.

It turns out that the answer to our questions has a variety of answers. However, it does validate our current approach that one of the useful ways to look at identity is to consider that people have a single, unique identity but many context-dependent partial identities or personas. The result is more of an onion than linear, so that operating at the outer layers of the onion may not have any connection at all with the unique core:

Another interesting insight from the report is the move to an informational definition of identity from a document-based definition. The impact of the Information Age is to make it increasingly necessary for governments to consider identity information- its collection, verification, storage, maintenance, and disposal- rather than just the issue and use of identity documents.

As we look at these issues in finer and finer detail, it remains important to not lose sight of the basics. Such as, people own and control their own identity while government’s role is to manage their identity information well. And, the need to put theory into practice.

So that in the future, when Bill and Jessica want to return home to New Zealand, they have one less thing to worry about.

[Original post at http://blog.e.govt.nz/index.php/2008/07/09/just-what-is-identity/]

Entry filed under: authentication, government, identity, NZ, personal_info, privacy, report, security, strategy. Tags: .

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