You’re a young office worker in America. When your alarm goes off at 6am, you do what most people do:
you pick up your phone. You check your social media. You look at your calendar, fire off a couple of messages, roll out of bed, and hop in the shower. As you head out the door to work, you pop in your ear buds, open your favorite music-streaming service and turn up the Beyoncé.
Over the course of your day, you engage in hundreds of small interactions – each one
meticulously tracked by your phone and stored in a faraway server farm. Your phone knows what route you took to work. It knows that you spent 15 minutes reading about politics and “liking” your friends’ weekend photos when you were supposed to be on a conference call. It knows who you were with when you hit that new after-work spot that everyone’s been talking about.
Each piece of data adds to vast
digital dossier that is already hard for most people to comprehend, much less control. And it’s not just your phone – your car, your thermostat, your fitness tracker, and the checkout where you swipe your debit card on your morning coffee run are all sending information about you back to headquarters, where it can be aggregated and analyzed.
We’ve become so accustomed to sharing our digital lives, it almost seems mundane. But make no mistake: This is about power.
Imagine you’re a young office worker in China. You have a
similar morning routine. But on your way to work, you stroll past a series of surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition software. The cameras log your presence in a database that’s shared with a local police post. Just last week, officers arrested a man with an outstanding warrant after the cameras spotted him in a crowd. In a few short years, your government wants to integrate your town’s surveillance cameras into a system that will track a variety of online and offline activity, to reward people who engage in socially desirable behavior, and punish other people who do things the ruling Communist Party doesn’t like.
Historically, governments have kept tabs on their citizens using a handful of official markers: passports, birth and death certificates, social security numbers. In some countries, it’s a set of fingerprints on file with the secret police. When you can’t board a plane, open a bank account, take out a loan, or file for a tax refund without showing some form of government-sanctioned ID, that’s power.
Your digital identity – the sum of all the personal information companies and governments can access about you – is far richer and more personal than any paper document. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In India, millions of poorer citizens who were never issued paper birth certificates are using government-issued IDs linked to their fingerprints and eye scans to access government benefits and open bank accounts.
But in the wrong hands, and without the right checks and balances, digital identity can be a powerful weapon. Many Americans were troubled to learn that political operatives had used inappropriately obtained personal information to target millions of voters with political ads during the 2016 presidential race. In authoritarian countries that want to control restive populations or tamp down dissent, the stakes are even higher.