The Top 10 Hot Identity Topics: A Smart Card Alliance Identity Council White Paper

An in-depth report on issues affecting identity management and protection

Our shrinking world compels individuals and societies to be constantly thoughtful of the need to protect our own identities and to know with certainty the identity of those with whom we trust our wealth, our privacy, and our security. When confronted with new opportunities for increased commerce, freedom of movement, communication, and knowledge, we’ve almost always chosen to move forward and have repeatedly turned to technology to enable us to do so and to protect us against the threats accompanying these new opportunities. 

All changes to the status quo entail costs and risks. The challenge is to find ways to make informed decisions about the costs, risks, and benefits of using new technologies to protect our identities. The process we use to evaluate new technologies is critical to achieving benefits from their adoption.

What Has Technology Done for Us Recently to Protect our Identities?

Reliable identification is critical to transactions between parties who have inadequate knowledge of each other. The success of such transactions relies on a trusted third party being able to vouch for the participants’ identities. Third-party testimonials are used in face-to-face transactions of all kinds and in remote transactions, such as purchases over the phone and the Internet. The identity credential issued by the third party must be portable; otherwise, we would constantly be relying on in-person validation like that performed by a notary, something that is inconvenient, costly, and time consuming.

Technology has been able to improve and protect our transactions with strangers and our personal information in a variety of ways. Technology makes such transactions faster, more secure, and more convenient (for example, contactless payment systems like American Express® ExpressPay) and makes access to personal information more secure (for example, biometric authenticators like fingerprints and iris scans). Credentials containing our identities (for example, the new U.S. electronic passport containing a chip) are made more secure by using smart cards that employ the latest cryptographic methods to protect the data on the card and authenticate the entity accessing the data. Smart cards are also being used to protect access to our personal information over public and private networks. These are just a few examples of how technology is being used today to help individuals protect their personal information.

Who Controls When New Technologies Are Adopted?

In our private lives, technological solutions for protecting our identities or increasing our ability to interact more easily with others are typically adopted incrementally. Trade-offs among security, privacy, convenience and cost are continually balanced and rebalanced by mechanisms of our free markets. Some people choose to adopt new technologies immediately, while others choose to wait until the technology is “proven.” We decide when the time is right for each of us.

Currently, our society as a whole is faced with threats to its physical security posed by the falsification of identities at the state and Federal level, and government is charged with addressing these challenges. However, any technological solutions that are chosen to combat these threats cannot be imposed incrementally. The implications of implementing a new technology throughout an entire society are far reaching, and we need to understand and balance the tradeoffs between security, privacy, convenience, and cost immediately.

Don’t We Need Laws to Control Adoption of Technology Protecting our Identities? 

With technology becoming more prevalent and complex and with the pace of change accelerating, governments are struggling to keep up with new threats to their citizens’ identities. Two legislative alternatives commonly considered in such situations are to:

  1. Legislate against new technologies until they are adequately “proven” or deemed safe; or

  2. Outlaw the willful misuse of new technologies, and legislate the responsibility for damages in the event of failures with no criminal intent. 

The first approach carries the genuine risk of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and depriving society of the benefits of a new technology. The latter allows the benefits to accrue to society without locking in the status quo or selecting technological favorites that can result in stifling competition and increasing costs to society.