Digital identities, biometric data and the illusion of Choice

As manufacturers continue to produce smart products that all require your wifi password, the average home router knows more about your family than you do. Your home is overflowing with data, whether it be your smart TV, digital assistants, web browsing, listening, and viewing habits. When you leave your home, every swipe and like on your mobile device and even your movement is tracked.

Digital payments also leave a trail of digital footprints that reveal granular details about your spending habits.

 Your smartphone will know you better than your significant other.

The inconvenient truth is that it's not a vaccine that contains a tracking device. Your data has always been harvested in the name of convenience, personalized digital experiences. 

Privacy vs. convenience. Can you have both?

There is an argument that you don't need to sacrifice privacy for convenience, and you can have both. ApplePay and Google Pay are prominent examples that have made facial recognition and digital payments a big hit with consumers.

Here in 2021, video surveillance and AI-based facial recognition are a fact of life, and many are less worried about privacy than they are about losing their wallet or phone.

Many aspects of our life already use biometric data such as fingerprints and facial recognition for authentication. Scanning our passports and faces upon arrival in another country or accessing our online bank accounts has replaced friction with convenience. 

Biometrics and digital identity are paving the way for smile-to-pay facial recognition systems. They have also enabled Amazon Go to dispense with checkouts altogether, and many believe it could also help us wave goodbye to the dreaded password once and for all. The dream we have been sold is a convenient, secure, and privacy-focused digital world.

Be careful what you wish for

For the most part, we have become comfortable unlocking our digital identity using biometric authentication. Where the data is stored and who has access will depend entirely on what country you are reading this. When biometrics, data privacy, and security are not taken seriously, it quickly paves the way for workplace surveillancepredictive policing, and pre-crime algorithms.

However, the arrival of so-called domestic COVID passports that require a "Green Badge" to enter the office, hotel, gym, cinema, or bar could see us further drift into creepy territory. Anyone that has watched an episode of the Masked Singer or seen examples of needing to prove your identity and vaccination status before going to a concert might think they have woken up in a Black Mirror episode. But where do we go from here?

 If we have learned anything from the introduction of contact tracing apps, it's that despite the best intentions, security vulnerabilities and privacy problems can quickly arise.

When implementing any tech solution at scale, governments seldom think about what happens when personal data gets stolen. For any new system to be a success, there needs to be greater transparency. The public must be able to trust and understand how their data will be secured and used.

World Economic Forum tweet screenshot

Digital identity is not all about you

There are over a billion people that do not have a legal identity. They do not have access to bank accounts, loans, healthcare, or the ability to vote. There are many problems that technology can overcome and empower the global community. Blockchain could provide a decentralized identity solution and a viable alternative to traditional centralized digital databases.

The first "blockchain baby" was born in Tanzania back in 2018. Combining a digital ID and blockchain enables humanitarian authorities to cut down on fraud and ensure access to vitamins. This is just one example that highlights why governments, health agencies, and tech firms are increasingly building digital identity solutions. 

Technology can positively impact how we securely manage entities, devices, and the internet of things when in the right hands. Digital identities are seen as a way to tackle inequality and provide inclusive access to the modern digital economy. If you dare to look at the bigger picture, digital identity is not all about you.

Graph of digital identity usage in various fields

Despite the overwhelming positives that digital identity can bring to the world, this technology can take a sinister turn in the wrong hands. When linking a digital identity to a health passport, It could provide some governments with a green light for tyranny. However, long before COVID vaccines and domestic passports, the inconvenient truth is that every click, like, swipe and selfie, has always been tracked. 

These digital footprints helped tech companies personalize content and give you more of what you want to keep you staring at a screen and endlessly scrolling in search of your next dopamine hit. If you dared to look away from the screen, traditional media might advise you to question nothing and avoid critical thinking.

An extract from The New York Times about critical thinking

We are now beginning to explore digital identity in ways that would have been unthinkable just twelve months ago. When the COVID nightmare is over, will domestic passports and scanning of QR codes eventually be linked to a social credit system that rewards good citizens for a zero-carbon lifestyle? Whether that sounds like progress or dystopia will depend entirely on your worldview. 

Where will our trail of digital footprints lead to in five years from now? Most people are happy when they believe they have control over their actions and exercise free will. But could the smorgasbord of data we are creating and the media we consume create an illusion of choice? As Merovingian said in the Matrix movie, "Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without." 

Digital identities are becoming the foundation of our data-driven economy and society. We desperately need to restore trust and build international standards in this area to avoid sleepwalking into a dystopian two-tiered society.