Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Persisting identity

Digital identity is an interesting problem. If, for example, you google for me you’ll turn up a number of dead email addresses, including

as well as some ex work addresses, some others which might or might not work, and at least one that has been reallocated to someone else entirely.

In other words, email addresses are not persistent.

Which is a pity because if you are going to assert identity, ie you say that you are this uniquely identifiable person, email addresses would seem to be a good candidate - it’s where all these standard things like your gas bill goes, just like in the old pre electronic bills, a utility bill could be accepted as evidence of identity and that you might actually live at th street address listed.

So email addresses don’t work. Twitter handles might, Facebook logins might, purely because there’s 800 million of them, and they are fairly universal.

Now, why am I interested in this problem? Can’t we just use their names?

Well, no. People change their names. In some cultures names are not fixed things and change according to context. And sometimes they do it for convenience or just for the hell of it

For example I once had a young Chinese woman work for me. She gave herself an exotic sounding first name, Rainbow, which sounded vaguely like her Chinese forenames and used the transliteration of her Chinese family name as her surname. And as is common her email address firstname.lastname@institution.edu, or more accurately western_name.lastname@institution.edu.

Yet to the government her name was her chinese name and her personal email address was based on that name.

Now let’s get hypothetical here. Let’s suggest she published a conference paper under her western name and then a journal paper under her chinese name. If we wanted to build a bibliography we need a key such as ORCID or the NLA Party identifier to tie them together.

But that leaves us with the problem of those that came before. For many years journals have recorded email addresses of the authors of papers. As we’ve seen email addresses are not persistent and most institution turn off accounts sometime between zero and ninety days after you leave. The institution may remember you are there, but there’s no link between the old pre ORCID address and your new address.
Some services like academia.edu use name matching to try and come up with lists of publications, but of course this all falls apart as only names of white anglo males are reasonably perisistent.

ORCID and name matching may provide a solution for academics.

But academics are very much a minority population.

If you start looking at ownership of cultural materials by people who are not white anglo males it gets difficult. People can have different names at different times in their life, be referred to by one name if they are kin, and another if they are not.

In other words you need a common key, and while Facebook id’s might be  good starting point they tend only to reflect someone’s current public identity, but one needs a service to tie someone’s identities together, just like ORCID.

This is of course important for people such as indigenous artists, musicians and and story tellers, especially as in these days of digitisation tracing the origin and ownership of material is increasingly a formal process.

In the old days one could presume that someone who allowed themselves to be recorded for anthroplogical or linguistic research was doing it as a private agreement between researcher and subject - nowadays because dissemination is so much easier you need to both obtain permission for reuse and be able to identify the author or performer, or be able to say reuse is not permitted.

I don’t have a solution. However what it does mean that when recording identity related data even in something as apparently straightforward as a consent form we need to be aware of the possibility of reuse and also that names are not truly persistent

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