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Identity verification in a digital world

1 December 2022
Sarah Karsenti

How can you verify someone's identity? Quite simply, you might answer: ID or passport would be required. But would they? Aren't we able nowadays to verify someone's identity online digitally? Why must we require tangible signed documents? The following passages will hopefully clear up this matter.

This last summer, many Israelis experienced much frustration when their passports expired, and they had to rush to renew them before flying abroad. Thousands waited in long lines, some having to return with a missing document, others scurrying from one chapter to the other, searching for a free queue, hoping not to miss their upcoming flight.

One might ask why these Israelis did not bother to renew their passports months before their expiration date. The answer is that they forgot, and understandably so. When the Coronavirus broke out about two years ago, all flight arrangements were disrupted, and airports worldwide closed and opened their gates alternately. Flights were canceled, delayed, or postponed, and uncertainty reigned supreme. People were not concerned with planning their vacation and instead were trying to contact customer service to refund their tickets.

The mood changed only a few months ago when people started talking about "living in a Coronavirus world" and were no longer required to wear masks. A surge of purchases, vacations, and events swept the world, and hundreds of Israelis dared to vacate. Lockdown was but a distant memory.

Ironically, these months were the last before hundreds of Israeli passports were to expire. Many Israelis were stuck with expired (or nearly expired) passports days before their long-awaited trip. Fortunately for these Israelis, the state was aware of the citizens' sensitive situation. It announced that they were no longer required to make an appointment at the Ministry of Interior to renew their passports, thus saving thousands the trouble of waiting.

I was one of those Israelis stuck with an expired passport. I must confess that I realized my passport expired only 24 hours before my flight, which set me on a race to obtain the required passport renewal.

Unfortunately, this was a complicated process, the shortest and quickest one being renewing my passport at the airport. This process costs twice as much as a regular procedure which does not require an appointment. And to top it all off, I was required to present my ID card only for verification. My license wouldn't qualify, and I couldn't find my ID card anywhere.

This story ended with me arriving at the airport with every item of alternative verification of my identity. I waited for my last-minute passport renewal with tens of others like me. The clerk who handled my request accepted my driver's license with no question. I had a brand-new passport within half an hour, and the flight took off without further disruptions.

However, this case got me thinking. Can I depend on a physical document to verify my identity? In today's world, the concept of identifying someone by their passport seems outdated and even unnecessary. Identity is a graph of relations, and it seems odd to quantify it as a monovalent document. There are many technological and digital means to prove one's identity, preferable to requiring a single specific document.

What would happen if, for example, a fingerprint scan brought up all the data related to me? Not only my personal details but also reports of provident and insurance funds, water and property tax bills, previous workplaces, my children's names, etc. I am not referring to the biometric passport suggested nowadays. Still, a much more sophisticated mechanism would eliminate the need to maintain government offices or at least eliminate the endless bureaucratic work involved in maintaining this data and documenting it.

Of course, my proposed solutions also have their advantages and disadvantages. The transition to internet-only dependence may be just as sensitive, especially considering the threat of hackers hacking into the databases and cyber-attacks on Israel. Nevertheless, this is the general direction the world is heading, and solutions will be devised to overcome potential hazards. In a technological age like ours, we must consider investing in a solution that will save us unnecessary bureaucratic costs and constraints.

Digital authentication is relevant to data but no less applicable to information - to documents whose reliability and signature we want to verify, and this is how we begin to delve into the field of knowledge management.

What further? Will the digital verification of the future handle the knowledge in every worker's mind? I doubt it. But certainly, the same type of graph of a smart system of relationships between the information or the data items will be used and is already being used today for extracting knowledge from information (see: knowledge graphs) and not only for digital verification. That, however, is a subject for another article.


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