eHistory: where stands the Renaissance man?

Looking at the advancing digital revolution as it accelerates its pace and brings about new opportunities, concerns rise about how to protect the integrity, privacy and freedom of the individual. In the era of big data and mass profiling, unprecedented volumes of information, including sensitive data, are being collected, mined and aggregated automatically and in real-time. While organizations leverage the competitive edge offered by the instruments available, new trade-offs are to be addressed.

by Sophie B. de la Giroday

As we embark on another year, bringing you the synthesis of what we observe in both industry and markets, we look into the future as an empty canvas, knowing that the work we do as a global community on identity related innovation casts lights and shadows on it. Focusing on something as strategic and sensitive as IDs, we also applaud the latest results in terms of transparency, automation, and accountability and what the modernization of systems has achieved to increase security and productivity, to facilitate trade and travel, as well as streamline procedures. We also look at the emerging threats that can derive from the very nature of the new globe-spanning, mobile and intelligent infrastructure watching us and monitoring our behavior.

What we definitely need to better get to grips with is e-history, a phenomenon that has emerged in the last few years. Those of us who are members of the last non digital native generation and all members of the last non eID-native generation, need to ask: Are we going to strive in the society of ubiquitous identification and massive profiling? Is massive profiling necessary for our economies to flourish and all individuals to live better lives? What are its negative implications? And is there anything we should address from the start beyond what we often referred to as the security vs privacy trade-offs? What we know is that today we prepare the colours and sketch the draft for scenarios we can only imagine at the present moment in time… but these scenarios are shortly going to become reality, affecting the lives of people in all continents and staying there for the decades or centuries to come, much like frescoes once the cement dries on the walls. We, the community of the ID Revolution, are those who still remember where these scenarios came from, when the revolution started. We are those who witnessed one of humanity’s greatest and most powerful inventions come to life, an innovation that will define our future. In the cave of the wizard, we crafted the first digital identities and saw the very start of e-history. We are accountable for this revolutionary introduction and must take the responsibility of accompanying it down the line as it creates major changes in the economy, society and even culture we live in.

Sharing personal data

As the first generation of eID natives, the generation of our children, now grows up before our eyes, we are struck by their bold and laid-back agility online, which we admire, although all too often perceive as somewhat naïve and careless. It is evident that they do not appreciate the unintended consequences of their actions as they give away their personal data freely and lightheartedly.

We, the ones who took our time before accepting to perform transactions online and still bother for things such as anonymity, may have our hard time keeping pace with technology. But we have even greater difficulties and concerns trying to understand how it comes that our children can post surprising quantities and types of unprotected personal information online. Some of us still remember the times when even asking personal questions was considered somewhat impolite out of the context of an intimate conversation or a legal investigation.

Things are changing at the speed of light. In the era of globalization and of Internet, we learned that one can no longer aspire to the type of privacy interpreted as a right for total anonymity. We once perceived this type of discreetness as an ultimate value, to the point that it is still hard for some of us to stop fighting for it at all costs. This said, there are people who espouse social inclusion and global security as paramount objectives that come first.

A modern privacy concept

These ultimate objectives are the basis of stability; a priceless opportunity that humanity should choose over and above the nostalgia of the total anonymity, that was still possible at the time of citadels protected by walls and static societies. In the era of global trade and travel, basing our interactions on the trust models leveraging strong identities is the only way to secure the global village and to ensure that each and every human can be assigned with rights, duties and privileges within society. Nonetheless we should redefine what the right for privacy, that is also mentioned in the European constitution, stands for. But let us get to the very concept of eHistory.

In pre-eHistoric times history was written with a selective exercise performed by humans, prone to error and often biased. In general, we know that history retains select facts and figures, often distorted, but convincingly and sometimes cleverly and even artistically compiled, regardless of the lack of accuracy, vested interests, or the undisclosed agenda. History describes the lives of select individuals and organizations, as well as the story of their possessions, aspirations and exchanges in order to systematically inform and influence a mass audience.

Big Data

Today we live in the early days of modern archiving or e-history: from now on a new type of digital annals are automatically recorded by government organizations, corporations and private persons alike, with a selective exercise performed by machines driven by the various strategic objectives of public authorities, businesses and individuals. We collect volumes of information called Big Data, orienting our powerful instruments to perform their investigation on the basis of our purposes. e-history is the mass-recording of attributes, tendencies and behaviors of massive populations of individuals and assets. It intelligently presents different select, critical information to each single requester aiming to offer an ad hoc aggregation of facts and figures, with granularity of information granted down to the individual person or object observed. e-History is a product of universal profiling and in this regard, governments, businesses and even citizens have the means and are growing more adept at learning how to profile automatically.

They may profile a target group or an individual according to the specific, given objectives of serving a population, milking a customer base or entertaining an entourage of friends. As a matter of fact, we perform exactly the same action, with more or less refined and sometimes astonishingly powerful new instruments. Today profiling is a virgin land that will give rise to many known, as well as unknòwn issues and opportunities. We are all voluntarily joining the race and there is a key point we must not forget: when it comes to our personal data, our individual participation in the digital revolution is irreversible. There is an urgent need to establish a framework to reconcile this situation in light of our right for liberty, as irreversible could mean captive.

Role of eIDs

IDs, whether strong and statistically secure, or fake, or multiple and disposable, are key to the automatic generation, aggregation and processing of big data that become smart once crunched through the powerful algorithms of semantic engines and other advanced tools.
 eIDs are the alpha and omega in eHistory writing, in compilation of digital annals that are surfed with intelligence for a variety of purposes, to learn about individual histories written with the ink of the digital trail we all leave behind us as we live our lives in the digital era.

An age of transition

I recently moved to Zurich, a city I hardly knew anything about. I had my first walk around the old-town two weeks ago and was pleased to see that there is an exhibition going on to celebrate the death, 1,200 years ago, of Charlemagne, Charles the Great, which will occur on January 28, 2014. Charles the Great and the Merovingians is one of the highlights I remember from the Medieval History classes I took at university, and I am all but a detractor of that millennium of transition, from the establishment of great monarchies, to international trade in cities like Venice and corporations and Hansastädte. The Medieval period was a time of many great accomplishments; it was a time that will always mark a spot in history.

Still, I would have considered being born in any of those ten centuries between the heights reached by the Roman Empire and the new heights reached during the renaissance quite disgraceful.

What is happening now is that more or less consciously, we are sliding into what could turn out as a new, decades-long age of transition. The etymology of the word ‘Medieval’ sees modern Latin speak of a ‘medium aevum’, that is to say a middle age between two presumably greater periods. And here is where we stand today, in the accelerated times of eHistory, where decades correspond to centuries: we are amidst what we first admired as the ‘rise of the internet’ – that is to say the great time of the .com empire we saw grow and blow at the turn of the millennium and today’s rise of the Internet giants – and the time that will eventually come as a new renaissance, placing man back at the center.

We must ensure that all efforts are made to understand as quickly and profoundly as possible what it means to place man back at the center today. What it means taking at heart his necessities, expectations, values and ambitions, in all contexts and as we meet him in the real and in the digital worlds, as a citizen, consumer, employee or patient. Giving him a sufficiently secure credential to perform transactions safely is just a first step. Offering him legislation, solutions and technologies that allow him to protect also his digital persona while asserting his rights and ultimately empowering him as a member of modern civilization is the true goal.

Intelligent instruments

Governments have taken the lead and started showing the way, as they progressively reach out to each and every member of humanity by establishing new eGovernment grounds via eID-based infrastructures, which assign rights as irrevocable attributes to each human being and establish direct individual relationships with each local and foreign citizen. Corporations have a long way to go. They reach out to each individual person with ever more intelligent and sometimes invasive instruments, but we cannot expect them to drive the resolutions and changes that are necessary. Since corporations are measured by bottom line financial results, we cannot expect them to spontaneously restrict their freedom to generate these.

It would be asking them to go against their very nature and what they are chartered to do. Corporations, will assimilate and leverage big data, any data in the shrewdest way possible to gain a competitive edge and to drive the best return for their shareholders.

King or captive?

Let us get to the individual. Today’s customer benefits constant attention. He is able to appease his thirst for information and suggestions at all times, on the basis of what he expressed more or less voluntarily as his interests or inclinations. But in the arena of online advertising, when his attributes, preferences and actions are known, he is probably destined to succumb to a constant call to action and expense via profiled advertising. Is the client still to be considered a king or is he to be seen as a captive?

The ultimate goal is having each and every member in future generations to remain in control of one’s right to exercise free will. The individual should remain the final arbiter. For this, he needs to have a say regarding what is being done with his personal data and I hope we can find a new and modern way to appreciate and protect his privacy. If my inclination or tendency, or my one-off mistake gets me onto unhealthy, or non-constructive tracks, I want to be able to say ‘stop’. Yet if certain messages keep coming and coming, the system is enforcing an opinion or endorsing a behavior that could become addictive. Think about propaganda. I want to be well informed and free to develop my own judgment. Think about an alcoholic trying to stop, to get out: in this case control of my profile is paramount. I have changed, but I am powerless.

So, just as in Medieval times, we are between two points in history, where fundamental concepts and objectives need to be reconciled: liberty vs captivity. The man of modern time renaissance cannot be a captive. In modern society there is a need of disclosure, but we must factor in our wish as individuals to be in the position to control and erase the information we share. While we have to accept compromises to participate in the digital community, we should not be asked to give up our rights. When it comes to sharing and disseminating personal data indiscriminately, policies should meticulously weigh and address a number of critical aspects: upfront they need to foster the negotiation of voluntary and well informed decisions by the individual; they should furthermore try to support the establishment of processes that are reversible at irrèlevant costs, when it comes to the right of the recipient of forwarding and exposing personal data to third parties.

So this is why we have years, possibly decades ahead of us to continue the investigation this community started. And these are the emerging challenges that our community needs to factor in today, to ensure the result of our work is meaningful and coherent with our ambition to foster sustainable progress. This is not just security vs. privacy… it is our right to experience life in the broadest possible way, not in manner narrowed down and handed over to us. What we are discussing here is experiencing the quality of life.

The new Big Brother

We need however to be conscious of how today’s Internet giants are going about handling our personal data, especially knowing that leaders in public institutions are taking notice – at least in Europe where a New European Data Privacy Law aims to introduce constraints. Governments have done so much in recent years to lose the ‘Big Brother’ image and promote the message of utilizing the personal data they collect for the citizens’ benefit. They still have a long way to go and the time is for us as a community focused on identification and data, to work towards a new aspect of public private collaboration, so that governments, enterprise and the internet giants, who now hold and have access to so much data on all of us, establish new grounds to behave responsibly.

It is the governments and individuals, the illuminated minds of some of today’s outstanding movers and shakers of the ID Revolution who will drive change. As we progress with this message as a community, we could have the privilege of inspiring the modern Leonardos, those who will grasp the entire picture, starting with the implications deriving from the proliferation of identities, to the exponential growth of digital trails and unstructured data of all sorts becoming smart, and envision a world of opportunities, as we write the next page of eHistory.

Medieval stands for what was and what will be, where we were and were we need to go. We are now on a journey to define the path going forward and to turn an important page successfully, placing the modern day Renaissance man back at the center.