Is that really you?

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

In a digital world, complete and real anonymity online is a mere illusion unless you take a lot of steps, including several ones which may very likely be illegal or not allowed by the contracts offered by any Internet Access Provider.

Even in that case, there are many occasions where you will want or need people online to know who you really are. Occasions, that is, when you will need the capability of demonstrating online, in order for your everyday life to work smoothly.

In a few years, the capability of having and proving an online identity could become really necessary for travel, to obtain a bank account or credit card, apply for a job, activate utility contracts or other services and so on. In all these cases, everybody would save a lot of time and worries if even online it were possible, fast and easy to certify the online identities of all the involved parties.

Until this day, we have all more or less managed to carry on with passports, ID cards and driver licenses made of paper, for the simple reason that we didn’t need to show them to somebody sitting in front of a computer thousands of miles away from us. The fact that we are moving, whether we like it or not, to a digital and digitally managed world makes it essential to have some digital version of our identity which is reliable, simple to use and cannot be easily abused online. Consider that online identity fraud already makes tens of thousands of victims every year. Moving online, to an all-digital world makes it both more likely to happen and more dangerous.

Electronic mail has became very common, publishing online one’s diary or creating the kind of problems mentioned in the chapter on privacy is a popular and pretty easy activity. In spite of this, most citizens and parents haven’t realized yet that the Internet isn’t just a trendy way to publish boring diaries or read free news and abuse of fair use while it’s still possible. In other words, almost nobody has already realized how important it is for all of us that a viable online identity system is established for both personal and business usage.

Like with any other issue discussed in this book, however, online identity isn’t some obscure technical problem only relevant for computer geeks. The fact that, for example, even many Schools and Public Administrations are only going to increase their use of computer databases and Internet based services to work for us is enough to make of this another sector where we all are computer and Internet users regardless of if, how and how much we personally use these technologies. Is the system ready for this?

The problem isn’t easy to frame: what is an online identity? What do you want from yours, that is what should it “contain”? Just your name or also your Social Security and bank account number, digitized fingerprints, family status, address, shopping preferences, every country you have visited and so on? When and how do you want and need to merge your online identity with your “real”, everyday life? Do you need more than one of such identities?

(this chapter continues here)