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Plurality of Identities

31/12/07: A new blog entry about the reality of multiple identities.

See Online Opinion blog.


While some argue for one electronic identity and a host of relationships, a subtly but fundamentally different view is that we actually possess many identities, and that it is better all round to retain the ability to keep them all separate. This is not actually a radical proposal. I believe that most of us are pretty comfortable almost unconsciously treating, for example, identity as a citizen differently from identity as a bank account holder, or identity as an employee.

Judging by the work of others in the field [including Microsoft's Kim Cameron], we may in fact be in the midst of a true paradigm shift, to a new world view based on a plurality of identities. And here I’m using the infamous "p word" - much loved by consultants but derided by almost everyone else - in its proper context.

Ironically I suspect that the singular identity paradigm is a child of the computer age. Before the Internet and before the advent of IdM, we lived happily in a world of plural identities - citizen, spouse, employee, customer, account holder, another account holder, patient, club member, another club member and so on ad infinitum. It was only after we started getting computer accounts that it occurred to people to think in terms of one “true” identity plus a constellation of “roles”; or to use the orthodox jargon, one authentication followed by multiple authorisations.

The idea of biometric authentication plays straight into the orthodox world view that each user has one “true” identity. The widespread intuitive appeal of biometrics must be based on an idea that what matters in all transactions is the biological organism. But it’s not. In most real world transactions, the “role” is all that matters, and it’s only under rare conditions of investigating frauds that we go to the forensic extreme of locating the organism.