Privacy

Who gets to own your digital identity?

Comment

Image Credits: Gary Waters / Getty Images

Christoffer O. Hernæs

Contributor

Christoffer O. Hernæs is chief digital officer of Sbanken, Norway’s first digital-only bank and leading challenger bank.

More posts from Christoffer O. Hernæs

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” was stated in the legendary New York Times cartoon that captured the spirit of privacy and anonymity in the early days of the internet. Even though anonymity is still a hot topic and sought after in the online world, times have changed. With the rise of online banking, social media, e-commerce and peer-to-peer services, a verified digital identity is a crucial ingredient in making any digital platform succeed.

Banking is one of the areas where the ability to verify one’s identity in a secure and compliant manner is a prerequisite to access basic services. Looking at the unbanked population of the world today, it is estimated that as many as 1.5 billion people lack access to everyday banking services due to their inability to prove their identity through a valid birth certificate, passport, proof of residency through utility bill or some other means to fulfill traditional KYC procedures.

In addition to accessing digital banking, most of us also have verified our identity through a plethora of services like Google, Facebook, Blizzard and the list goes on, through various means of identity verification that make up an interlinked web of interdependencies, where one of your identities vouch for your eligibility to access another service. Two-factor authentication or biometric identification often rely on your mobile phone, and when you choose to log in with Facebook, you authorize Facebook to represent you online. While this is often convenient for easy and quick access to the latest mobile app you want to try out, you are paying a price by allowing Facebook to share and sell not only your data but also your digital identity.

However, your digital identity is more than your login credentials. This is merely the authentication that connects you with the digital you. Your digital identity consists of thousands of data points that make up a profile of who you are and your preferences. Today, your digital identity is scattered all over the internet, where Facebook owns our social identity, retailers own our shopping patterns, credit agencies hold our creditworthiness, Google knows what we have been curious of since the dawn of the internet and your bank owns your payment history. As a result, we are all analyzed in detail to predict our future behavior and monetize our digital identities.

Not only do we lack ownership of our own data, but our fragmented digital identities where various third parties own bits and pieces only gives part of the picture, and also proposes vulnerabilities for those third parties. As an example, fraudsters have started to take advantage of this in countries with no national identifier by creating synthetic digital identities by signing up digital services and applying for credit. Even though the initial credit application is rejected, a credit file is automatically created, thus creating a digital paper trail for a non-existing person. With approximately 10 million new consumer credit files generated in the U.S. each year, synthetic identities can be very difficult to detect. Over time, these synthetic identities gain access to credit, and bank losses due to synthetic fraud are estimated to amount for somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion each year.

In the wake of numerous exposures of how our data is exploited, with Cambridge Analytica as the most notable example, privacy becomes an increasing concern for the public, as well. Apple seeks to leverage this attention to digital privacy by taking a radically different approach than their counterparts with “sign in with Apple,” where privacy is the main selling point for using their service instead of Google and Facebook.

Blockchain is often proposed as the silver bullet to solve all our digital identity needs, something that has caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg that addresses what he sees as the pros and cons of a decentralized approach to digital identity. As Facebook represents a quintessential man in the middle, losing ownership of all our identities is most likely the biggest con of a decentralized approach to digital identity in the eyes of Zuckerberg.

With the upcoming launch of Facebook’s cryptocurrency, Libra, the company has the potential to further strengthen its position as a leading provider of a global digital identity solution. Often overlooked with most of the attention directed toward the cryptocurrency, many point to the decentralized identity associated with Libra as the most interesting aspect of Facebook’s plans. A passage hidden away near the bottom of the documentation states: “An additional goal of the association is to develop and promote an open identity standard. We believe that decentralized and portable digital identity is a prerequisite to financial inclusion and competition.”

A consolidated and verified digital identity would be beneficial to both users and providers of digital services. However, allowing Facebook or The Libra Association to be the custodian of our consolidated digital identity is a sinister trail for the future of both privacy and democracy.

On the other hand, the Holy Grail of decentralized identity, often named a self-sovereign identity, has its weaknesses, namely ourselves as human beings. We tend to be forgetful, and sometimes downright unreliable. Letting users keep the only key to access their digital identities is a recipe for disaster the moment someone forgets their password or pass away. There is nobody to call and no Forgot Password button to reclaim the ownership of the identity.

It is difficult to envision a future of digital identity without relying on some kind of identity custodian that maintains a verified connection between your physical and digital self, ensures that no data is used without consent, monitors malicious behavior and provides user support in case of a lost key. This is far from an easy solution and should be provided by a regulated entity. One thing is for sure, such a solution relies on trust and must give the end user full ownership of their own data, similar to data portability under GDPR.

There is too much at stake when it comes to our digital identities to remain unvigilant of what is going on, as shown numerous times through both data breaches where our personal data is compromised and manipulation of public opinion through social media.

No matter which technology or appointed custodian we deploy to solve this, our identities should belong to we the people rather than one corporation or consortium of corporations that seek to exploit our data for profit.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

21 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

23 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android