The ID Question

ID Systems: A Reading List

Things to read, watch, and listen to on identity in the modern age

5 min read

Many ID cards
The ID Question logo styled like an identification card

Read the next installment: “What Is It Like to Live in the World’s Biggest Experiment in Biometric Identity?
Read the previous installment: “
What is the ID Question?


For The ID Question, we’ve curated a reading list on what identity systems look like around the world. It will give you a good sense of the breadth and scope of the series. Feel free to let us know about other good reads on these topics in our Facebook group.


To be a good citizen, it’s important to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and see the big picture. If everything you see is rooted in your own identity, that becomes difficult or impossible.

– Eli Pariser

Start Here

If you read one thing on identity systems in the modern age, this should be it. In 2013, Kevin P. Donovan at the University of Cape Town and Carly Nyst, legal director of Privacy International in London, wrote an article in Slate entitled “Privacy for the Other 5 Billion.” In it, they argue that the Western world needs to pay more attention to privacy implications when they back programs like Aadhaar, India’s all-encompassing digital ID system, which is being used as a model around the globe. Here’s a key quote:

“This vigorous adoption of technologies for collecting, processing, tracking, profiling, and managing personal data–in short, surveillance technologies–risks centralizing an increasing amount of power in the hands of government authorities, often in places where democratic safeguards and civil society watchdogs are limited.”


We’ve broken this list down into some of the major topics we cover in The ID Question series:

India & Aadhaar

Refugees, Immigration, and Cultural Issues

Work as Identity

Personal Stories

  • The File: Lost Then Found
    A.M. Homes // Granta [18-minute read]
    A personal essay by the novelist about reading her childhood adoption record from 1961, and its impact on her sense of self.
  • “Crossing the line: What counts as online harassment?
    Aaron Smith & Maeve Duggan // Pew Research Center [20-minute read]
    The rules of digital spaces can be both fluid and opaque, but Pew attempts to define exactly what counts as online harassment.
  • Where Are You Really From
    Zara Rahman // Real Life Mag [15-minute read]
    Location drop-down menu in online forms force us to make artificial choices about where we’re “really” from.
  • Who Decides Who Counts as Native American?
    Brooke Jarvis // New York Times Magazine [25-minute read]
    The story of the Nooksack 306, people who were kicked out of a Native American tribe in a dispute over their “rightful” identity.
  • How a new technology is changing the lives of people who cannot speak
    Jordan Kisner // The Guardian [18-minute read]
    It’s now possible to reconstruct someone’s voice entirely in a computer before they lose it.
  • Notes from a Baby-Names Obsessive
    Lauren Collins // New Yorker [14-minute read]
    Collins writes about how difficult it was to choose a name for her mixed-heritage child.

Digital Identity & Global Development


Watch and Listen

Finally, if you prefer to learn in audiovisual form, here are some themed talks, documentaries, and podcasts to watch and listen to.

  • “‘Think your email’s private? Think Again’, a TED Talk by Andy Yen.

  • Blockchain researcher Bettina Warburg speaks at TED about how she believes blockchain will transform the economy.
  • Lives in Limbo is a visual journey of the experiences of refugees in Ireland’s Direct Provision system

  • Philosopher and novelist Kwame Antony Appiah delivered the 2016 Reith lectures. Listen to him talk about shared identity in four separate podcast episodes from the BBC: Creed, Colour, Country, and Culture.

Read the next installment: “What Is It Like to Live in the World’s Biggest Experiment in Biometric Identity?
Read the previous installment: “
What is the ID Question?

The ID Question logo styled like an identification card

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. The ID Question is a five-part series that asks: Who and what defines us in the digital age? The series follows The Identities Project, field research that looked at the real-life impact of identity systems on individuals in India. It was conducted by Caribou Digital and Storythings and commissioned by the Omidyar Network.