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Customer Futures Perspective: Human identity is brilliant because it's open. So why are our digital identities closed?
Our digital identity tools are broken because they fail to meet our human needs. We need open identity, not closed.
Hi everyone, thanks for coming back to Customer Futures. Each week I unpack the fundamental shifts around Personal AI, digital customer relationships and customer engagement.
This is the PERSPECTIVE edition, a regular take on the future of digital customer relationships.
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PERSPECTIVE: Human identity is brilliant because it's open. So why are our digital identities closed?
Today’s post is the first in a short series about digital identity.
We’ll explore why our digital ID solutions and systems are so broken. Why fixing them is so hard. And why we need to meet human needs, not just business requirements.
We’ll look at the root causes, the impacts, and what we can do about it. Spoiler alert: digital identity wallets, Personal AI and new private, personal data networks can help fix the mess.
But first, we need to dig into what’s wrong today. Because if we don’t understand the problem, we can’t begin to fix it.
Our digital identity tools are broken
Digital life is getting ever more complicated.
Too many forms to fill out. Too many passwords to remember and keep safe. Too many hoops to jump through when speaking to a call centre or creating a new account online.
Our digital identity tools — on which most of our lives, businesses and economies now depend — simply aren’t working.
The costs related to identity are rising, whilst digital fraud is exploding. And both businesses and consumers are increasingly crippled with fear about data hacks and security.
Not to mention swirling concerns about mobile apps and devices spying on customers, or leaking personal data to third parties.
Many of these issues stem from the same root cause. We can’t trust who is on the other end of a digital connection.
And it’s everywhere.
Many (most?) of the issues we face online are a direct result of this difficulty in proving who we are.
And the answer? More digital identity! More personal data!
Yet today’s digital identity solutions are still failing. Failing to scale. Failing to be trusted. Failing to create the value they promised.
No one can put their finger on it.
We keep trying new and different approaches to digital identity systems, but each hits the same brick wall. About privacy. About scalability. About user experience. About interoperability. Over and over and over.
I want to suggest it’s because our digital identity systems are missing people.
Missing the humans. You know, us.
As people - customers, citizens, consumers - we have human requirements for proving things about ourselves.
Yet our digital identity systems and solutions have largely been built around requirements from companies and governments.
People have been forgotten.
How can I be so sure? Take a look backwards.
We’ve had a pretty good identity system for hundreds of years. It works internationally. It’s interoperable and fantastically scalable. And it’s pretty reliable.
It’s paper credentials.
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Meeting human needs
We’ve been using paper to capture identity data ever since we started writing things down.
Paper credentials have been used so widely, for so long - and have become so stubbornly embedded in our society - for a single and critical reason:
They effortlessly meet a number of human requirements. Not just business and governmental ones.
Paper credentials have at least six characteristics that meet our human requirements for identity:
They are centred on the person
They are accessible
They are varied
They work across contexts
They are private
They can be used in limitless combinations
Take a quick look at each:
1. Centred on the person
Throughout our entire life we are given various pieces of paper by others — usually trusted public institutions. Those organisations can ‘vouch’ for us when we present those bits of paper to others.
We are the bearers and holders of those credentials.
We look after them. We replace them when they are lost or stolen. And we organise them, often in folders, wallets or purses.
Put simply, these pieces of paper are organised around me. Not some other system or product or solution.
Anyone, anywhere can issue or accept paper credentials.
Paper credentials have been good enough for most people, for most uses, and in most places.
They are relatively easy to issue and are very easy to hold and use.
Paper credentials come in gazillions of formats, types, shapes and colours.
They can meet multiple needs and can comply with many standards. All whilst being based on the same physical infrastructure.
4. Seamless contexts
We can use our paper credentials over and over again in as many different places and times as needed.
I may be a patient in the morning, an employee in the afternoon and a sports coach at night.
And our paper credentials can travel with us from place to place. They can be shared, under our control, wherever and whenever it makes sense.
Whilst our paper credentials work across these different contexts, they can’t track us across those same contexts.
I can use my passport to apply for a rental apartment, prove my age at a bar or open a bank account.
But none of those groups will know about the other.
And nor should they - unless I choose to tell them. This speaks to our fundamental right to privacy.
Critically, paper credentials are private by default.
6. Unlimited combinations
If someone needs to know more about me, then they can just ask me for as many additional credentials as they wish.
And can keep doing that until I can meet whatever level of trust they need.
Paper means we can have ‘open-loop’ identity
Separately, these six characteristics make paper ID super useful and scalable. But put together, something magical happens.
Paper credentials form an open-loop identity ecosystem.
The individual holds their own identity information
They can share what information they want with whom, whenever and wherever they like
Anyone can accept identity credentials from anyone else
There are unlimited variations and combinations
We are empowered to re-use the same credentials in different places
We can put different combinations of credentials together to create an even stronger proof of who we are
It seems like such a simple idea.
So why can’t my digital ID behave like my paper ID? Why can’t my digital data be as simple to store and share as paper? Useful anywhere, and under my control?
Yet our modern digital identity systems seem to fall at the first hurdle.
So let’s call it out: today’s digital identity platforms and solutions are really just closed-loop identity systems.
They are great for specific groups, walled gardens and certain contexts. Helpful for the organisations who devise and use them.
But a nightmare for people.
Full of repetition and manual entry, where the burden of effort is pushed to the customer and the citizen.
Yes, it’s fashionable today to talk about being ‘customer-centric’. But when it comes to digital identity, we are miles away.
Is it because we’re really only using digital identity tools to meet business needs? Or because there are technical limits? Or because there are regulations that prevent us from meeting our human requirements?
That’s for the next post.
For now, let’s agree that it’s time to build identity tools and infrastructure that can meet our needs too.
Our human needs. Our personal needs.
And that it’s time for open-loop digital identity.
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