The Digital Identity Crisis Is Here

It is old news by now that, even as it approaches half a billion registered users, Facebook also infamously accounts for one of the most searched phrases in recent weeks, i.e., “how do I delete my Facebook profile?” among other variations.

It seems that as the Net Generation has entered the workforce and begun its process of professional acculturation, the desire to be a little more circumspect about one’s personal data has increased. I’ve been predicting this would happen for quite some time.

However, as I and many other observers with a bit of “gray hair” have written, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. A good summary article in the NY Times entitled “How Privacy Vanishes Online” discussed how the minutiae of personal data that we provide online – our birthdays, our school and work histories, etc. – are pieces that can be assembled to supplement programs specifically written to guess more important personal identifiers, like social security numbers.

This sea of data minutiae is likely to increase, with more and more being captured that we know and that others know about us, as shown in the diagram from a research paper about “Pervasive Personal Identity” by nGenera.

At the same time, more is becoming known about us that we are either unaware exists in the hands of others or of which we are completely unaware about ourselves – in other words, totally new findings about our unique digital selves, as represented in the bottom-right “unknown” quadrant of the diagram.

So, how do we navigate this sea of identity, where it feels like we are less the captains of our own cruise liner and more the passenger on an itty-bitty skiff with no one at the oars? Fortunately, there’s a lot going on and, for those that want to get just a bit more educated about the subject, here are some resources for you to check out.

In terms of framing the “big think” aspects of the identity discussion, some excellent recent writing samples – all of which will lead you to other writers providing thought leadership – include the following:

Actually, Cameron’s list is augmented by members of the Identity Commons community. This community is the best center of gravity that I’ve run across for the combination of technical, educational, and legal proposals and solutions involving (digital) identity.

For example, the Identity Venn diagram is perhaps the best single representation of both the technology state-of-the-art and aspirational target of user-centric identity management. Of the three major circles in the diagram, two (SAML and OpenID) are slowly, but surely getting increased adoption.

It is the third piece – information cards, or i-cards – is the linchpin that is yet to really obtain a sufficient level of early adoption.  But, I believe the era of i-cards is coming. And open source projects like Higgins, are helping to strengthen the knowledge and code base for i-card technology so that (hopefully) they will be here sooner than later.

In the meantime, there are some simple steps that we can all practice to be more involved in managing our identities, just like the parental wisdom your mom or dad might have tried to impart with you when you were a kid about managing your money. These include:

  • Employ your own “listening” to know the unknown – anyone can set up a Google or Yahoo alert, which sends you an e-mail any time your name is used on the internet. Do it.
  • Actively manage your critical records and passwords – yes, it can be a hassle, but you need to manage your identity, just like you manage your career. So, simple regular housekeeping – like keeping your profile current and changing your key passwords from time to time – is a necessity.
  • Teach your loved ones about the value of personal information – while media attention about the changes to Facebook privacy controls is helping to educate younger generations about the permanence of data, they need to be reminded that “there is no delete key” for the internet

The truth is, your digital identity and your analog life are irrevocably connected; so if you don’t manage your identify, someone else will, by creating or perpetuating information about “who you are” that is outdated or incorrect. As the new turn on the old saying “You are what you eat” goes: “you are what you tweet.”