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Who am I anyway?

I’ve been preoccupied with proving my identity recently, which is probably what brought to mind this story about my Dad and his first attempt to cash the housekeeping cheque.

You should bear in mind that Dad had been writing a housekeeping cheque every week for some considerable time at this point, and that he had handed them over to Mum, who had toddled along to the local bank to cash them – the same bank, the same cheque, every Friday morning for perhaps thirty years.

And then Dad retired, which I think came as a bit of a shock to them both.  At a loose end, he strolled down to town with Mum that morning, and on a whim he took back the cheque and went to cash it himself.

The clerk asked for some form of ID, and he looked around in consternation.  He’d only set out for a stroll, after all.  Fortunately the clerk glanced up at this point, saw Mum and passed the cheque without further enquiry.

Whilst Mum has many sterling qualities, she’s not a readily portable nor a universally accepted form of ID.  That’s why, having recently started a new job, I found myself dashing around a strange town carrying enough ID to persuade my new employer that I really existed and feeling as if I might as well be wearing a T-shirt that read ‘all you can eat identity fraud buffet’.

This made me more than a little nervous, as I’m sure you can imagine – particularly if you know me well enough to realise that there was a high chance of the whole bundle getting left on the train.  It was almost enough to bring me round to the idea of biometric ID cards.

(You may be worrying slightly, at this point, about what sort of person struggles to prove they exist to the satisfaction of a potential employer.  I don’t drive, I’ve let my passport expire, and all my utility bills are on-line.  Added to that, I previously lived just around the corner with my in-laws, so that going to the bank personally to get my address changed was not my highest priority.  Fortunately it took longer than I had imagined possible for a firm offer ‘pending satisfactory pre-employment checks’ (which oddly enough did not include proving my identity) to be translated into turning up on my first morning.  So I had plenty of time to find a branch of my bank that was open on a Saturday, to realise that I could download a printable version of my utility bills, and to find the driving licence that I never use.)

Looking back, I’m less concerned than I was about my potential muggability that morning, and that’s because I’ve realised that despite the trouble I had accumulating the necessary documents, it was really not worth the risk of mugging me for them – not when any half way competent fraudster could probably have mustered them just as easily.

You’re not convinced?  Well let’s have a look at what I was carrying.

Birth certificate. Oh please!  Birth certificates are a joke, as far as ID goes.  They pose the classic identity conundrum – since it would be deeply unfair to deprive someone of their most acceptable form of identification just because they were unlucky enough to have their house burn down, it’s really not that difficult to get a duplicate, and this means that whilst they prove fairly conclusively that someone with the name you’re using was born around the right time, they’re hardly compelling evidence that you are that person.  How accurately can you judge someone’s age anyway? ‘Cos I know I personally struggle to hit the right decade.

Driving licence.  Well it has a photo on it, although small and smudged and not the best likeness in the first place.  (They will insist on a neutral expression, which is a thing I seldom wear.)  I can’t remember what I had to supply to get it, but I don’t remember the conditions being stringent.

Bank statement. I’ll admit it would take some dedication to fake this, what with the non-standard paper size and the odd colours and so forth . . . but that does rather assume that the person checking knows what it ought to look like, which given that my bank totally redesigned their statements about three months ago strikes me as unlikely.  And anyway, my statements are not exactly discreetly packaged (to be fair, I know some banks are more careful about this) and, without meaning to defame the post office, it can’t be that difficult to get hold of one if you really want to.

Utility bill. Much the same applies – but more so.  An online account, so certainly hackable by someone who really wanted to (you’re not going to persuade me that Eon or EDF or any of the others has better security than the Pentagon) and I printed them myself.  Give me a scanner and a word processor and I’m moderately confident that I could make you one that would fool the company that was supposed to have issued it.

And finally, a payslip.  I will admit that I’d struggle to fake my payslip (though I’ve worked some places where I could have done so easily).  However, they are left in pigeon holes to be collected, to save on postage.  And it’s a big establishment.  You trust everyone you work with?

Kindling, the whole lot of it.  So I have to jump through hoops to prove that I am a real enough person to be employed . . . and yet the average crook could probably provide the same proof without a great deal more trouble – and without getting as nervous about the horrible possibility of accidently leaving it all on the train.

I seem to have backed myself into a corner here.  I’m entirely unsatisfied with all the proof of identity that I can currently muster, but my gut instinct cries out against biometric ID.  Well it would, wouldn’t it?  My gut instinct belongs to an animal that evolved to wander around in groups small enough that any individual could expect to recognise anyone it was likely to meet on any given day.  So I won’t try rationalising my distaste for biometric ID, except to refer you to E E ‘Doc’ Smith*, who pointed out that the essential problem with all forms of ID is that what man can make man can counterfeit, and to my earlier remark about hacking.

So, to drag myself reluctantly back to the point, what am I suggesting?  We don’t live in small bands anymore.  We don’t even live in small stable communities anymore. With rare exceptions such as Dad’s first cheque cashing experience, we simply don’t live in a world where questions of identity can be resolved by personal relationships, where anyone can seriously expect to get any business done if they can only proceed on the recommendation of a customer of long-standing.

Or do we?

You see, the other reason I’ve been thinking about proving my identity is from setting up this account.  WordPress appears to be more than content that I exist because I have a Twitter account.  Twitter was satisfied with a Hotmail account.  Hotmail didn’t really give a damn whether I existed, as long as there was a remote possibility that I would be seduced by MSN and look at the adverts.

Now I do realise that this is not good enough for tax purposes – I’m sure I’d be horrified if it was.  But isn’t it, perhaps, a beginning?  I suspect that the handful of people who might just read this will already know me from Twitter, and whilst I’m not saying that I’d try calling any of you as character witnesses in court, it’s distinctly possible that you know me better than the man I’m hoping to get to sign the photo in my passport application.  I’m practically certain you know me better than you would if I’d met you in the pub last night (though I hope I’ve managed to keep a lid on my weakness for bad jokes† and you don’t know if I’m the sort of person who’s never there when it comes to my round).

I’d certainly like to think that it’s a beginning, that these villages we construct in the virtual world, these human-sized communities, will eventually, in some unexpected way, allow for a secure form of virtual identity that makes as much sense to our grandchildren as having our passport applications countersigned by the local doctor or solicitor did to our grandparents.

So I’ll dig my heels in just a little bit longer over the biometric ID, and for now you’ll
have to settle for my assurance that I am Alex Brightsmith.

Goodnight, dear reader, whoever you are.


*You don’t know Doc Smith?  What did you do with your childhood?  Doc Smith wrote sensational space opera – the most over the top sci-fi you’re ever likely to encounter.  But he did occasionally hold off from sending himself up for long enough to make a valid point.

†Q: Why do elephants paint their toenails pink? A: So they can hide in cherry trees . . . there’s a whole string of these, if you’re interested.  I’m guessing from the usual reaction that you won’t be.


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