Shopping for a new identity
The political economy of identity systems
If you’ve ever lived in the US, you'll be familiar with the phrase, “I’m moving to Canada.” Well, I recently received the gift of a new perspective on this saying. Everything about my identity was compromised: my social security number, even my medical history.1 While I was sorting through the mess, I thought to myself, “if my identity gets hosed in this breach, at least I have my Canadian identity to fall back on.”
It made me wonder: when people say, “I’m moving to Canada,” to what degree do they believe that they’re overexposed to the US identity system and need to diversify?
Identity systems and risk
People who decide to move to Canada are probably not be thinking about their decision as “identity shopping”—at least not explicitly. But some people do. Here are some examples of immigration in the sense of “getting a new identity,” divorced from expectations of physical residence:
A wealthy American buys a passport to a Caribbean island nation.2 Perhaps they’re concerned about the “risk” of US taxation (to their pocketbook).
A wealthy Brazilian family uses Portugal’s “Golden Visa” program.3 It nets them EU residency (and eventually citizenship) in exchange for a monetary investment.
These schemes advertise themselves primarily as strategies for managing risk—the risk of being overexposed to threats posed by one’s national identity. Which makes sense: national identity systems confer more than names and genders. They grant mobilities, privileges, access to goods, financial instruments, and a sense of cultural belonging. They can also come with tricky details: taxes, court orders, identity thieves, limitations to mobility, civil persecution, to name a few.
All kinds of people might want to diversify their portfolio of available identities. Right now, this “pay-to-play” service caters mainly to the well-to-do, in part because there’s not much competition. Countries can pick their price. Their strategies differ: Portugal requires a direct investment, Canada uses a points-based system to project your future value as a taxpayer. But the effect is the same: nations compete to sell new identities.
A new identity is not the goal of migration for most. But the things people migrate for (schools, services, etc.) often require new identities. And using the notion of identity as a service that a state provides allows us to think about that service—and who competes to provide it.
So what? Fissures in citizenship, fragmented identity
Leaks, breaches, and extortion have amplified identity theft's impact. And criminals aren’t the only ones interested in the market for your private information. Between state surveillance and private-sector surveillance, your identity is a valuable commodity. Soon, more (and more diverse) people may be clamoring for “clean” or “fresh” identities.
…a world in which there is ‘perfect information’ and imperfect identity. The combination of omnipresent sensors and ubiquitous connectivity turns out to be a poisoned chalice. We now know too much—and know it too accurately—for societies to remain stable, though people find ways to introduce new uncertainty by adopting multiple identities.
As various immigration schemes illustrate, state identity systems already compete to provide (certain types of) people with wiggle room. Identity theft and wide-scale data harvesting may heighten this competition. Where small island nations today advertise immigration schemes to save your tax bill, they could soon advertise that they’ll let you “start fresh from identity theft.”4 Alongside “visa-free access to Europe,” Portugal could promote your “right to be forgotten” as a perk of residency.
What about identities provisioned outside of state authority? Tech companies are already provisioning meaningful identities for us. Perhaps Google and Facebook will try to make their identity systems competitive with national identities, even to provide similar services. That’s a new realm in which tech companies can compete both with each other and with states.
Or, perhaps new types of collectively-owned identity systems will make a second identity more accessible—and less tightly tied to national jurisdiction.5 Where forced migration collides with state power to limit mobilities of the poor while favoring the rich,6 new, non-state identities issued in the spirit of collective aid could do a great deal to make migration easier, flexible, and more just.
Now what? Building tomorrow’s systems
We do need better identity systems than we have. And we’re at an inflection point, at which our decisions could radically impact the future of identity.
The race will be a competitive one. Remember: whoever provides desirable identities stands to win additional benefits. They can manage systems of trust. The US manages (through a patchwork) a system of credit scores. As Facebook’s cryptocurrency project competes with states to provide financial services, it also competes with the US government’s power to delegate trust.7 In doing so, it challenges states’ monopoly on granting “legitimate” identities.
On the dystopian end, imagine a Facebook “trust API” that lets developers ask natural-language questions about profiles, like “how much can I trust this person to take care of a $300-dollar-a-night hotel suite?” Now imagine hotels using this internationally. Now imagine going through security with your Facebook profile at privately-run airports.
On the utopian hand, imagine an identity system that’s more flexible and more equitable than anything states (or corporations) provide. Imagine using these identities to hold the power of surveillant tech companies at bay while also forcing states to remain competitive in the way they provision identity.
We may end up living in both futures. Multiple identities could overlap imperfectly. In a way, we live in that world now—but not everyone gets to take equal advantage of it. New systems of identity increase competition among identity systems, providing more (and more diverse) people wiggle room.
So, let’s design better identity systems, understanding that we’re headed into a fragmented landscape. As we do, my questions are:
When will these identity systems collaborate to solve problems (modern-day analogy: Western countries tracking down terrorists internationally)?
How will digital technologies allow entrants to provide greater wiggle room (modern-day analogy: Caribbean nations enabling tax evasion)?
The answers will depend on the values of the people running identity systems. What does the US government care about, and what does Facebook care about? What do the developers of cryptocurrencies care about? What kinds of behavior does one seek to eliminate, while the other turns a blind eye? Answers to these questions could shape what kinds of wiggle room are available—and to whom.
My health insurer used Accellion to transfer patient files, and Accellion got breached. This stuff can happen to anyone, even security researchers.
As of March 2021, of any nationality, the greatest number of Portuguese “golden visas” are issued to Chinese nationals. Brazillian, American, and Turkish are next.
To a degree, the cryptographic identities provided by cryptocurrency networks are competing with state identities to provide “wiggle room” for otherwise illicit financial transactions. (Contrary to perceptions that cryptocurrencies enable “anonymous payments,” payments over blockchains are typically easy to de-anonymize. Entire companies specialize in this, mainly to track ransomware payments.)
A. Aneesh and David J. Wolover. “Citizenship and inequality in a global age.” Sociology Compass 11.5 (2017): e12477.