The modern world presents citizens with an ever-increasing number of situations in which they are required to prove who they are to institutions and authority figures. From claiming food rations in refugee camps 8to boarding aircraft in megacity airports, the very structure of modernity appears to be premised on the idea that most people can provide some evidence about who they are, on a regular basis.
This is not entirely new. Many countries have been issuing identity cards, passports or driving licenses for decades, in some cases for centuries.9However, the last two decades have seen an explosion in the number of technologies deployed to verify that a person is who they claim to be.
Passports now routinely contain a microchip allowing automated facial recognition at immigration checks and reducing interactions with border guards. Governments increasingly care more about biometric identity databases of fingerprints, irises, and faces, and less about a plastic or paper pocket card. Cards and papers can be lost, stolen, or forgotten. Irises and fingerprints are somewhat more firmly attached to their owners.
However, governments aren’t the only ones rolling out progressively sophisticated and widespread identity technologies. Credit card companies and credit rating agencies have offered identity verification for some time, especially at major life moments like buying a house or car.
More recently and more visibly, major social networks offer seemingly throwaway digital identities that over time are proving to be increasingly strong. While services like Twitter and Facebook are well known for containing large numbers of fake or duplicate accounts, this problem can sometimes conceal the remarkable robustness of mature social network user accounts as identity mechanisms. Specifically, if a person has a Facebook profile with hundreds of friends and a lively, extended, highly personal posting history, then that person controls a form of identity verification technology that is probably similarly robust to most nations’ driving license registers. In the case of social network identities, certainty is based on networks of friends and family, rather than the official stamp of an administrator.
Furthermore, the identities offered by private digital identity providers are fundamentally more flexible and interoperable than those offered by most governments. A Google profile can be used to login to thousands of apps. In most countries, a passport cannot be used to login to anything.
The overall effect of this expansion and multiplication of identity technologies is that more and more people are acquiring the ability to prove who they are, quickly, easily, and in many instances, independent of governments. And, more people are acquiring the ability to prove who they are remotely — over the internet. This development has real consequences for restricting or enhancing citizen engagement.
The growing impact of identity technologies on citizen engagement
Why will this technology trend likely have an impact on citizen engagement?
First, widespread adoption of identity technologies will lead many governments to require them as part of the voting process. In regimes with widespread voter fraud, this result could be a net good. However, it is well known that identity requirements are frequently used as a deliberate mechanism to exclude voters likely to support what the electoral authorities consider to the “wrong” party. Whether used for good or bad, identity technologies will affect the status quo of elections.
Second, greater usability means easier engagement. Highly usable, ubiquitous identity technologies mean that feedback, petitioning, and voting mechanisms that sit at the heart of citizen engagement can all be made quicker and easier for participants by the use of seamless digital identity mechanisms. Signing an online petition or joining a group can become one click, not several. If someone attends a local meeting and wants to express concerns, a fingerprint or a swipe of a phone screen will be able to produce a quick and authoritative record of attendee opinions. This increasing amount of data, even if not representative, is likely to influence some decisions in a way that a traditional meeting might not.
Third, these new identity systems could be used to make it clearer to decision makers that a citizen who is lobbying for or requesting some change is indeed a bona fide local citizen, not a bot or someone from another country. Citizens and activists know that decision makers are increasingly skeptical about whether speech online is actually coming from real local people. The new wave of identity technologies will make it easier for decision makers to believe the voices speaking are both human and relevant (i.e., people living in a certain area). If identity technologies are combined with social credit scoring, decision makers may feel new and acute forms of pressure to comply, as they will be exposed in detail to the size and heft mobilized by campaigns.
Society is entering an era in which decision makers will steadily obtain more precise and convincing data about who is asking them for action, which is likely to increase the pressure on decision makers to conform, especially if data are mixed with wider reputation data. However, research undertaken for this study leads to the conclusion that confusion on the part of decision makers about whether they are being pressed for change by real residents or ‘fake’ people is likely to be a temporary phase that is likely to be largely gone within a decade.
Verifying the identity of individual citizens is only one piece of the puzzle that needs solving if politicians and decision makers are to have certainty that citizen demands are real. Prediction 11 looks at what happens if the demands are felt to be phony.
8: The Building Blocks project is one of the first users of blockchain technology in the humanitarian field through which the World Food Programme has been distributing cash-for-food aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan. ↩
9: Early modes of identification were conceived as a travel document to provide individuals with safe passage through foreign territories. The first historical account of its use dates to around 450 BC, when King Artaxerxes of Persia allowed his royal cupbearer, Nehemiah, to travel to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls, granting him a letter requesting safe passage through lands beyond Artaxerxes ruling. King Henry V of England is credited with introducing into law a version of the passport under the Safe Conducts Act 1414. The French workers’ identity card (livret d’ouvrier) — streamlined by Napoleon in the early 1800s — is considered the precursor of modern national identification cards. A compulsory document to be possessed by French workers, it was a mechanism to constrain job mobility and the employment of seasonal workers who were perceived as a group prone to disorderly behavior. ↩