TOC Identity, personal or national? Your Turn

April 24, 2012

"Today, Mr. Sarkozy's campaign is built around the "values of national identity"" reports Steven Erlanger from Paris (*). Identity is indeed a powerful electoral theme. Think how brittle are British and Belgian identities, those real but embittered chimeras. Identity is also a deep and inescapable personal question. Who am I beyond what others make of me?

Indeed, at the root of the concept of identity, we find a conflict between perceiving one's life to be radically distinct from everyone else's and understanding one by necessity belongs to many groups with which one shares a common fate, nations by no means the only ones. For Amazon, it is vital to know whether you are a Visa or an American Express member, it is a burden to find whether you live in California or in Alaska, it is irrelevant to check whether you are a French or an American citizen.

By their very multiplicity, these relationships create another source of tension. From a personal perspective, each one of us sees oneself at the center of a social web but deals with each group as befits the underlying relation. For a group, this behavior is unsatisfactory, if not downright suspect. Were the relationship to sour, a group wants to know more about each of its members, starting with the other relationships they happen to have. If you look Hispanic and not prosperous enough, the Arizona police definitely wants to know whether the United States recognize your membership.

Hence when it comes to identity, no practical scheme can be implemented unless one takes into account the relations between groups. These can be negative, when a group excludes the members of another group. According to tradition, the British monarch may be picked among Germans but better not be a Catholic. Or positive, when a group requires its members to belong to another group. Many merchants require membership in either Visa or MasterCard before taking you on as a client. Or all shades in between, jealousy, tolerance, assistance. Indifference, a luxury or a necessity.

Life in society thus witnesses individuals whose freedom is predicated in part on their ability to play their own hand, one membership at a time, and groups whose insecurity requires them to check their members at all times not only for group membership but also for membership in other groups.

This was already true when nations did not even exist. But the same considerations color very contemporaneous events as the Information Age ushers a digital world in which face to face encounters between people who know one another become the exception rather than the rule.

Take Matthieu Mangion's memoir on why France has failed to adopt a national identity system based on electronic signatures (**).

Fear of surveillance is the first reason. Can one be free without eprivacy? If I present the same proof of identity to all groups, tracking how I play my hand at all times becomes too easy. On this issue Americans are even more sensitive than Frenchmen, since the former even refuse paper-based national IDs. Outsourcing such a scheme to a private entity is just as bad. If the US can access Facebook's records, is there a difference?

The second reason put forth is the self-sufficiency of French administrations. Why indeed would an independent organization want to base the verification of their membership on another? The latter would automatically enjoy benefits similar to those associated by bankers with seignorage.

Matthieu Mangion also mentions the multiplicity of initiatives. Since identity systems are subject to the network effect, the more the competitors, the less likely a dominant actor will reach the threshold for reaping desirable economies of scale and emerge as a de facto standard.

For the author, the lack of a national electronic ID card is a brake on the digital economy. Paradoxically, because they have fewer resources, less developed countries such as India find it easier to implement such systems. What a pity! Beware! This conclusion is both erroneous and dangerous.

Dangerous for, be he Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande, the next President of the French Republic may see a single national digital ID for all administrations as this godsend, an austerity measure which puts no burden on the French besides selfish fears for their privacy. Rather tempting!

Erroneous for this is another of these trade-offs which falsely pit economic prosperity against eprivacy. Allow me to explain.

Most relationships can be managed with relative identities. In a relationship, you only have to be the same as before and this can be captured by an arbitrary account number. Jailers are very careful about the identities of their guests but have been known to register them under meaningless numbers. At the other extreme, one still loses one's name when pressed into such exalted service as Pope or, in earlier days, Chinese Emperor.

Many relationships however are established upon recommendation, such as one's belonging to another group. The difficulty of doing due diligence on the latter is the real brake identified by Matthieu Mangion. The true nature of the issue is often overlooked, unfortunately.

What is needed is not a universal ID with which to stamp and track all my actions, but a system which enables recommendations as timely tripartite agreements between a willing recommender, the one who wants to be recommended and the one asking to receive and verify the recommendation.

"The more information there is out there, the more we need a few decent names on a CV as a shortcut" (***). Who we are depends on which groups we belong to. But "if you asked me about my working life, [...] I might reveal (depending on who was asking) that long ago I worked briefly for [...]. I might also add that I went to [...]". Who we say we are depends on whom we talk to and these daily transactions require real eprivacy.

Isolated in some silly silo far from David Gelles, her Facebook watcher colleague (1), Lucy Kellaway teaches technology in her humor column (2). Be they Facebook or the French Tax Administration, social networks should not impose centralized control, both permanent and pervasive, but set up standards for interoperability for groups and individuals to seamlessly, privately sollicit, generate, accept, receive and verify recommendations.

The ideal identity balances our gaining acceptance into groups with our managing what groups know about us, our need to belong with our desire to stay sole integrator of our singular life. It enables groups to exchange recommendations and verify membership without spying on their members.

The nation picks its own mix of capitalism and social solidarity, the fuels of all societies. What's lacking in holding "Liberty, Egality, Fraternity" as the ideal for French to share as a right and work for as a duty? Let others, please forgive my English, prefer freedom, stardom and clandom.

This group identity must reckon with all world powers and the search for a European identity. It should also tap our Information Age potential.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..... With Vote Days Away, Outlook for Sarkozy Dims, by Steven Erlanger (New York Times) - Apr 20, 2012
  • (**) ... La Signature numérique, by Matthieu Mangion (La Gazette de la société et des techniques) - January, 2012
  • (***) . Achieve all you like, affiliations still matter more, by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times) - Apr 23, 2012
  • (1) for a sampler of David Gelles, see the author index of these fillips
  • (2) for a sampler of Lucy Kellaway, see the author index of these fillips
April 2012
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