The Properties of Identity

 This is an excerpt from the OECD working paper AT A CROSSROADS: “PERSONHOOD” AND DIGITAL IDENTITY IN THE INFORMATION SOCIETY.
Identity behaves according to a number of observable properties, as follows:

  • Identity is social. Humans are naturally social. To engage in social interactions (including commerce) people need something that persists and that can be used as a basis for recognition of others – an “identity”.
  • Identity is subjective. Different people have different experiences with the same individual and therefore attribute different characteristics to that individual; that is, they will construct different identities for him.
  • Identity is valuable. By building a history of a person’s past actions, exchange of identity information creates social capital and enables transactions that wouldn’t be possible without identity. In other words, identity lends predictability to afford a comfortable level of confidence for people making decisions.
  • Identity is referential. An identity is not a person; it is only a reference to a person. Even if a person develops spin-off personas so that other people know him through those various digital identities, and even if others create profiles of a person, ultimately the collection of characteristics that signal who a person is need to point back to that person.
  • Identity is composite. Some information about a person arises from the person himself; he volunteers it. But other information about him is developed by others without his involvement.
  • Identity is consequential. Because identity tells of a person’s past actions, the decision to exchange identity information carries consequences: Disclosure of identity information in a certain context can cause harm; failure to disclose identity information in another context can create risk.
  • Identity is dynamic. Identity information is always changing; any particular identity dossier might be inaccurate at any given moment.
  • Identity is contextual. People have different identities that they may wish to keep entirely separate. Information can be harmful in the wrong context, or it can simply be irrelevant. Keeping identities separate allows a person to have more autonomy.
  • >Identity is equivocal. The process of identification is inherently error-prone.

 
* The Properties of Identity were articulated by Bob Blakley, Jeff Broberg, Anthony Nadalin, Dale Olds,
Mary Ruddy, Mary Rundle, and Paul Trevithick.
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