understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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posted by:Jeremy Hessing-Lewis. // 11:59 PM // August 07, 2007 // ID TRAIL MIX


A short story on the ID Trail


Incorrect username or password. Please try again.

He tried again.


Incorrect username or password. Please try again.

He tried again.

Incorrect username or password. Your ID is now locked. Please proceed to the nearest SECURE ID Validation Center for formal authentication. The nearest location can be found using the GoogleFED Search Tool.

After sitting stunned for a couple moments, Ross began to appreciate the full gravity of the situation. His ID was frozen. Everything was frozen. He just couldn't remember his damn PIN and that was the end of it. No PIN. No renewal. No ID. No authentication. No anything.

Since the government had launched the Single Enhanced Certification Using Reviewed Examination [SECURE] initiative, he really hadn't thought too much about it. Aside from a couple of headlines describing massive budget overruns and the usual privacy geeks heralding the end of the world, the New Government had pushed everything through without much fanfare.

That was four years ago. Since Ross already had a passport, the conversion to SECURE ID was pretty painless. He vaguely remembered something to do with a strand of hair and that they didn't even give him a card or anything, just read him his reauthorization PIN, thanked him for his time, and took his passport.

Since the carbon rationing system came into place in 2012, Ross really hadn't traveled anywhere off-line. There was no way he was going to save up carbon credits just to take a damn flight to some 45° cesspool. Plus, Google Travel could put him anywhere in the world in two clicks. A couple weeks ago he made some sangria and hit-up all the top clubs in Spain. He even bought a t-shirt at one which arrived in the mail two days later. That's why the SECURE ID renewal caught him off guard – it just rarely came-up for someone in his position.

Ross was just trying to buy a new snowboard for his Third Life avatar when things went wrong. He was notified that the transaction could not be processed because his GoogleCash account had been frozen pending authorization of his SECURE ID. Like just about everything else on or off-line, his identity was always confirmed back to this single source. While his ID Keychain supported a Federated identity management system in which he currently had 47 profiles (male, female, and gecko), they were all meaningless without reference to the master ID.

The SECURE system required multiple layers of redundancy. The PIN component would be required in addition to variable biometric authenticators. He had specifically written his 10 digit reauthentication PIN on a piece of paper and put it somewhere “safe.” So much for high-tech. That was four years ago and now, “safe” could be anywhere. The idea behind the routine expiry of SECURE IDs was to prevent identity theft from the deceased using stolen biometrics. Grave-robbing had been rampant for the first couple years of the program.

Ross grabbed his jacket and headed off to the SECURE ID Validation Center downtown knowing full well that he was as good as useless until he could authenticate himself.


The SECURE ID Validation Center was run by Veritas-SECURE, a public-private-partnership born of the New Deal 3.0. The idea was to exploit private-sector efficiencies while delivering top-notch public services. This P3 mantra had been something of an ongoing joke for years now but the government was unlikely to admit the error of its ways any time soon. Interestingly, the company that won the contract also ran the municipal waste disposal system. The critics couldn't stop talking about “synergies” and “leveraging technical expertise” when the winning bid was announced.

Ross arrived at the blue-glassed Veritas facility just after noon. He couldn't even buy lunch because the digital wallet in his phone had been deactivated when his SECURE ID was frozen. The day before, Ross had been mired in expense reports, cursing his multiple digital cash accounts associated with different profiles, devices, and credit sources.

Today, he had been thwarted by the keystone ID, the one that held everything else together and couldn’t be separated from his DNA.

The line for Formal Authentication zigzagged around two corners of the building against a cold marble wall. The only consolation was a nice big overhang covering the identity refugees from a light rain. He stepped into line behind a professional looking man with a brown leather briefcase and gray sports jacket.

Normally, he would've passed the time by watching movies on his iPod. Along with everything else, the DRM on his iPod was frozen pending authentication. The days of watching movies, or doing much of anything without authentication had evaporated long ago.

After a couple minutes of preliminary boredom, he tapped the gentleman with the briefcase on the shoulder asking with generalized ennui “Is this line even moving?”

“It depends how you define moving” the man replied, “if you're talking physics, then the answer is not for at least an hour. If you mean the decay of civil rights, then I guess you might say that we’re racing straight to the bottom.”

Somewhat surprised by the unprovoked disapproval, Ross was just happy to have a conversation to pass the time. He nodded his head enthusiastically. “This new ID system is only moderately infuriating though” he said. “I just hate these queues and the way they always try to make you feel like you're just another number.”

“Are you kidding? I would love nothing more than to be a number. Instead, I'm cursed with Jihad!” the man spat the final words.

Ross glanced up anxiously looking for the nearest Proxycam. Those things all had microphones and speakers these days and he was sure that the unit would ask the two of them to step out of line for questioning. Nothing happened.

The man quickly realized his error and extended his right hand saying. “I’m very sorry if I shocked you. My name is Jihad Azim, but everyone calls me Azi. I’m a university professor.”

Ross relaxed immediately, shaking the man’s hand as Azi continued “It’s just that my name brings me no end of grief. Jihad is actually a somewhat common name, but that sure isn't what you find with a Google search. The reason I'm stuck in this forsaken line is that they've red flagged my SECURE ID again! It happens every couple of weeks. I'm supposed to fly to Scottsdale for a conference tomorrow, but I'm pretty much grounded until I get this cleared up. The minions at the airport could neither confirm nor deny that the sky was blue, so I had to come down here. That's why I'd like nothing more than to be identified as a number. Then at least some fool with a grade 9 education wouldn't be fighting a holy war against my parents’ choice of name.”

“But couldn't you just change your name?” Ross asked, without giving it much thought.

“I could, but then I'd have a yellow flag on my ID noting that there'd been a change to my identity profile. That could be even worse. A colleague of mine has retinal implants and had to have her SECURE ID changed accordingly. Now she can't do anything without being questioned about the changes.” Azi said.

“I couldn't help but hear you two,” said a woman who had approached behind Ross and was pushing a stroller. “I know that this new system has been hard on some people, but you've gotta admit that this whole country is safer for it.”

Ross could see that this logic was going to make Azi angry, so he intervened first, questioning “But don't you think that sacrificing anonymity and privacy in the name of security is something of a false dichotomy?” Ross wasn’t entirely sure what he’d said, but he'd heard the line before and was satisfied that it sounded smart.

“Well, there might have been a better way.” She replied, “But I don't mind sacrificing a little privacy. I don't have anything to hide. And my daughter here, I'd gladly sacrifice my privacy for the security of my daughter. I can't bear to think of all those sickos out there. We’re here today for her first formal authentication so that they can confirm the samples they took at birth. Did you know that the SECURE ID is issued at birth now? I feel better knowing that she's already in the system.”

“You people are so out of it,” a new voice chimed in, “haven't you ever stopped to ask what an ID really is? It's not a number or name.” It was a young woman sitting crosslegged in front of Azi and wearing a pair of yoga jeans.

She continued “Identity doesn't come from some guy behind a computer representing the Government. Identity is how you tell the world who you are. My identity changes all the time. Like when I get a new job, or new friends, or a new hook-up. It seems like the older you get, the more attached you get to who you are. I don’t really care, for the last two weeks my avatar was a gecko.”

“No kidding.” Ross nostalgically remembered going through his gecko days.

The young woman cleared her throat and continued “The point is, you can't let The Man tell you who you are. It should be the other way around. We should control our identities.”

“So why are you here then?” the new mother retorted sarcastically. “Shouldn't you be busy launching DoS attacks against the ‘corporate agenda’ and all the complicit government agencies that hold it together?”

“I want to go volunteer at a monastery in New Burma, but The Man won't let me leave the country without a valid SECURE ID.”

Ross jumped-in noting “Hey, I was at a New Burmese monastery a couple weeks ago with Google Travel. Because of the time change, prayers don’t begin until four in the afternoon our time. Its perfect.”

The young woman was clearly not impressed. “No, like a REAL monastery with air and things you can touch.”

Ross had this debate all the time. “But…”

Azi was clearly not impressed by where this was going and interrupted “Well, I appreciate your helpful commentary. On the way to Scottsdale, maybe I’ll try ‘I am whoever I say I am and I choose to fly anonymously. If you absolutely must be provided with an ID, I happen to enjoy green tea, string theory, and the colour orange. Now please let me board the plane.”

As Azi was dismissing the young woman, a man in a gray suit neared Ross and stared blankly into the horizon of the queue. The man's pale face looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“Hey, so what's your story?” Ross couldn't help but ask.

“Ummm, I don’t know” the man replied.

“You don’t know? How can you not know?” Ross said.

“I just don’t know who I am anymore.” the man stuttered. “my identity has been stolen.”

The others gasped.

“Well, it's not that I don't know who I am, it’s just that the system has canceled my identity file as a result of concurrent use. There’s no way to verify that I am who I say I am because all my biometrics in have been compromised.”

The others remained silent. The SECURE ID system had been designed to be unbreakable. The authentication routine is so strong, and identity theft so difficult, that victim recovery remained nearly impossible. Everybody knew this. The only option was to create a new ID and start from scratch. The media labeled these victims “Born Agains.” Ross hadn't actually met one, but he’d read a couple blogs describing depressing encounters with these unfortunate souls. It was like being killed but leaving the body left to rot.

The young woman stood up, approached the identityless man, gave him a hug and gently requested: “Please, go in front of me.” The others tried not to make eye contact.

Out of sight and far down the line came a call for: “NEXT!” The line moved forward one meter.


Jeremy Hessing-Lewis is a law student at the University of Ottawa. He is writing a travel guide entitled “101 Must See Hikes in Google Maps” as well as his first novel “Things That are Square” (2009).


Dear Jeremy,

Nice piece but there is something that I didn't understand.

"Identity is how you tell the world who you are."

Why 'how' and not 'what'? With 'how,' it does not make much sense. How did you tell them? I wrote them a letter or I announced it in class at the break. But this can't be connected to our identities. And if we replace 'how' with 'what' does it have any possibility of being true? Suppose that I tell the world that I am Bill Gates and suppose that I even believe it. It is part of my identity? And when we talk about identity what are we talking about? There are different notions around, for example, metaphysical and social/cultural/political identity. And there are others. The identity I have when I present my library card to the librarian to take out a book or the identity that I have when I present my credit card to make a purchase.

I look forward to reading your novel.


Posted by: Steven Davis at August 7, 2007 09:57 AM

Thanks Steven. Having reread that sentence several times, I'm no closer to giving you an appropriate answer. While I won't pretend to have made deliberate use of the word "how" over "what," it certainly does raise some interesting questions.

For starters, the use of "how" implies an ongoing process or exchange. This word choice turns identity into a question and answer process. One in which a person would have no identity until it could be presented externally. This view holds identity as a dynamic exchange between the self and the world.

In contrast, "what" begs all kinds of other questions. Is identity something we have? Is it given to us? Can it be taken away?

Having said this, it's poor sci-fi form to be devising explanations after the fact. Instead, let me simply say that the word "what" would have been a better choice.

Posted by: Jeremy at August 8, 2007 12:59 AM

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