by Sarah Firisen
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. This was the tagline of a great New Yorker cartoon years ago. The joke being that no one could ever be sure who the real person was sitting behind the online persona. Last night I was watching a re-run of the Big Bang Theory. Howard Wolowitz was trying to rekindle his relationship with Bernadette. Their relationship had ended when she had caught him pleasuring himself while “playing” in World of Warcraft with Glissinda the Troll. It’s later revealed that Glissinda the Troll is actually Steve, the greasy old fat guy in Facilities Management. The punchline speaks to a nagging fear that anyone who has flirted, or more, on the Internet with stranger.
Who are you? Prove it! We are asked to prove our identities all day, every day. And conversely most of us, in many situations, have a degree of skepticism about the identity of people when we first encounter them, particularly online. While the fears of being taken in by a con man or having one’s identity stolen have been around for as long as mankind has been, they’ve become far more of an everyday fear and valid concern since the rise of the Internet.
For the few painful years I participated in online dating, I learned to treat every new encounter with a healthy amount of suspicion; I became the queen of romantic sleuthing. And those suspicions proved over and over to not be the result of a paranoid mind but entirely valid. In fact, over time, I became more suspicious and skeptical about men I chatted with online because I encountered every form of deception: profile photos that were poached from the headshots of actors and models; lots and lots of married men pretending otherwise; made up careers; inaccurate geographic profiles. Some men were clearly outright con artists clearly hoping to lure some less guarded poor woman into some financial scam. Some were just trying to cheat on their significant others. Some wanted to get laid while they were passing through town and thought that their chances were better if they pretended to be locals. Almost everyone using online dating has told white lies about their age and or height. If nothing else, there’s a valid concern that if you tip over into a new decade that will immediately shut you out of searches and so saying 39 instead of 40 doesn’t seem so terrible. Of course, when you’re still saying 39 five years later, that white lie becomes an increasingly dingy shade of gray.
If nothing else, most of us freely share our personal identity and data with corporations who store it, use it and share it with other corporations. Usually without our explicit consent. As this article points out, “In the twenty-first century, our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.— Yuval Harari”
And these are just the first world problems of identity. The far more compelling reasons for finding ways to verify and prove identity are in the parts of the world where so many people have no legal government identity to begin with. According to this HBR article, 2.4 billion poor people around the world have no official way to prove their identity. Amongst the many issues can arise from this, particularly in these day of heightened fears of terrorism and large scale movement of refugees around the global, lack of provable identity greatly increases the chances of human trafficking and slavery.
Blockchain technology has been touted as the most disruptive technology since the creation of the World Wide Web and it’s also been slammed as totally over-hyped. There are startups and large corporations creating products and piloting services to use it to track the provenance of everything from pork to diamonds. They're hoping it will cut out the middlemen and reduce costs and time delays in every kind of transaction from banking, insurance, real estate, and beyond. In the energy market it’s being used to try to modernize the grid for the large utility companies and create a peer-to-peer solar trading platform at the neighborhood level.
As other disruptive technologies emerge and mature, blockchain has a real and potentially vital role to play as the technology platform that these other technologies will rely on to scale reliably and safely. Just one example: as the number of connected devices multiplies exponentially every year, using blockchain to secure and track them solves very real and growing problems.
While it is true that blockchain is probably at the peak of inflated expectations and is likely headed toward the trough of disillusionment, it’s also very likely that, as the World Economic Forum stated, “Decentralised systems, such as the blockchain protocol, threaten to disintermediate almost every process in financial services” and beyond. And one place it can clearly solve a real and growing problem is personal identity and more particularly trust. Corporations don’t trust us. Governments don’t trust us. We don’t trust each other. What if I could go on an online dating site and KNOW that the man I’m talking to is who he says he is? That his photo is real (and recent). That his marital status is what he claims. And what if I could know all this, and more, without him losing his anonymity (until he chooses to lose it)? Using blockchain technology this could all be possible very soon. Some version of it is almost certain to be tomorrow’s reality. Tomorrow everybody will know that you’re a dog even if they don’t know your name is Fido.