Identifying people in 2024 needs system thinking
The identity space combines influential elements and various outcomes and has human beings at its centre, complicating the whole: this makes for a highly complex system. If this is a starting point, where do we go from there?
As a veteran of the identity space, I have concluded that we must change how we think about human-technology interactions and move from the concept of digital identity to “identifying journeys.” By shifting our thinking, we can build more inclusive services for people.
These identifying journeys are a critical component of the sociotechnical pathway we meander down and, as such, must be pivotal in designing identity systems. Over the last decade, the industry has developed and matured the tools and protocols needed to build identity systems, but it has yet to mature its approach to applying these. In 2024, the sector must reboot and begin to think systematically; otherwise, we will create more problems than we solve.
Digital identity, or whatever you wish to call it, I prefer “identifying journeys,” is a digital activity that we are all drawn into but not everyone can partake in. Typically, this is because of a lack of clarity in digital design principles, digital impoverishment, and the harms that can result in rushing solutions to market; sometimes, all three compound the situation.
Instead, looking at identity-related services using the notion of “identifying journeys” removes the need for static identifying attributes and all the issues that come with storage and changing variables. Instead, an identifying journey provides a modifiable framework that fits a digital journey rather than the nebulous idea of a digital identity.
However, building services that are based on journeys means that you must use system thinking as journeys can take many pathways: when a person attempts to carry out a task, for example, accessing a government service, renting a property, and so on, they begin a journey. This journey requires them to establish facts about themselves; these facts are not always set in stone; they may change, be challenging to establish, require multiple checks using different services, and the journey that person begins may also shift part way through. For example, the person may decide that they’d prefer to present specific information offline or may find it difficult to present certain required data (the reason is immaterial). System thinking provides an approach that facilitates acknowledgement and modification of the identifying journey. System thinking on identifying journeys builds bridges between humans and technology and is part of our human flourishing that we, as technologists, should strive for.
Why bother to be systematic about identity?
The great thing about systematically building identity-related services is that all types of vendors can play a role. Starting with the ethos you are building for identifying journeys, rather than creating a digital identity, creates a powerful and effective way for people to interact with technology. It also opens the market for players to build better services and benefit from people using those services.
What underpins a system that handles identifying journeys?
Your journey begins when you use a systematic way of looking at people interacting with technology. The system of identifying journeys is created from the tools we already have at our disposal. I have begun my own journey of identity awakening by starting to outline the basic layers/components of this system:
Services that provide identifying data include banks, government open data sources, digital wallets, existing accounts, person-entered-data.
The data layer is like digital oxygen for the system and is fundamental, but it needs to be managed by the other layers.
Technologies that perform some verification when challenged by the system. For example, behavioural biometrics, facial and voice recognition, passport and driver’s license identification solutions, credit reference checks, AML checks, other data affirmation sources, etc.
This layer must have as many choices as possible for the person taking the journey. It is analogous to human muscles, flexing these muscles to provide leverage for the data coming into the system.
Steering and enabling layer
These technologies connect the layers and steer the system – the beating heart of the system. These technologies can orchestrate and modify the system behaviours, and include privacy-enhancing components, security measures, user journey orchestration, data orchestration, orchestration and decisioning, protocol handling, and vouching options.
An essential layer that governs, manages, and handles the system elements. Some of these enabling technologies will provide the essential decisioning needed to modify the system behaviour.
Any website, device, service that needs identifying data to perform a task. This includes ecommerce sites, devices, government services, banks, social media, etc.
The belly of the system concludes the identifying journey and provides sustenance.
It is worth noting that some of these system components overlap between the layers. The steering and enabling technologies are less of a layer and more of a way to connect and control everything. The myriad identifying journeys that a person will take part in throughout their life is not achievable using point technology. Identifying journeys are the starting point to build a modifiable system that is genuinely inclusive.