The ID Question: Conclusion

Talking Identity: A Conversation Between Our Editors

We bring The ID Question to a close, and assess identity in the modern age

10 min read

Grid of various illustrated portraits from the whole series
The ID Question logo styled like an identification card

Read the previous installment: “Watch: How an ID System Can Make Your Life Harder

Illustration and caption: "Elizabeth Minkel, Editor–How We Get To Next"

To start, I’d like to talk about the original Identities Project, which you worked on last year. How did that lead to “The ID Question?”

Illustration and caption: "Anjali Ramachandran, Series Editor"

The original Identities Project was commissioned by the Omidyar Network, and run by Caribou Digital, who carried out the research on the ground in India. The project aimed to understand the different experiences that people had with identity on the ground in a country as large and diverse as India, which is implementing a national biometric scheme called Aadhaar that aims to cover every one of its 1.3 billion residents.

To be honest, it wasn’t just about Aadhaar–the project also wanted to understand people’s experiences with other forms of identity–but it wound up becoming a lot about Aadhaar, because that’s the biggest conversation in the country at the moment. It was mostly conversations with people who are middle-class or lower-middle-class: the peanut seller on the side of the road, or the middleman in the Aadhaar office that is supposed to authenticate documents, or bank agents in the east of the country.

We worked with an academic institution in Bangalore on the research, and we found a lot of interesting things in the interview transcripts that we couldn’t use for the project, which was intended for a very specific group of stakeholders. We wanted to explore what some of the issues would look like for a more general audience. That’s where the seed of “The ID Question” came from.

Elizabeth: When this project was planned, did they define the bounds of what “identity” meant?

Anjali: No, not exactly, and that’s interesting as well, because for a lot of people identity was about a card or some sort of document that could prove who they were.

Elizabeth: A physical ID.

Anjali: Physical ID, yes. It wasn’t mandated that that was the specific thing that we were looking for, because the mobile phone is a form of identity, at least a mobile number. But for the vast majority of people, it was about a form of physical ID–that’s where most of the discussions led, or at least the direction that most of the discussions took.

Elizabeth: It’s interesting, because I feel like–and maybe this is my perspective as an American–but when you say “ID,” “identity,” I immediately think of “identity politics,” not necessarily how you show who you are, but who defines you or how you define yourself. Obviously there are intersections with that with physical identification, but I’m wondering if it was made explicit that there was this dual definition of identity, and a connected one, depending on your gender or your job or your –

Anjali: Caste in India, actually.

Elizabeth: Exactly, right, that will affect what you have physically to identify yourself, right?

Anjali: Yes.

Elizabeth: I’m wondering how much of that you got into, or if that side of the term “identity” didn’t come into it–except implicitly, as you did the research.

Anjali: No–you’re so right, actually, that form of identity, identity politics specifically, didn’t come through that much in the original research, because I don’t think that was the goal of the research. It was more to understand the experiences that people had when they grappled with forms of identity, which was why it was mostly about documentation. A lot of the political debate in India is around caste and community, so it was always a factor, but the research itself wasn’t so much about that, I must say.

A figure with their head covered

Elizabeth: Transitioning to “The ID Question”: how did you conceive of the series? You had this specific India-focussed project, and now you wanted to make something that’s global. You moved it into the space where it was also about this other side of the definition of identity, right?

Anjali: Yes, absolutely, we wanted to make it global. “Identity” is interpreted so differently depending on where you come from, who you are, what your background is, where you are in life at a specific point in time. The series was originally conceived to answer some very basic questions that you typically ask when you meet someone, like “Where do you come from?” and “What do you do?” I would say “The ID Question” has answered those kinds of questions, but in a very different way.

Elizabeth: I feel like the first episode and the short videos are the bridge from the original research into the series, because they’re about Aadhaar. They’re all united by a similar theme: “This is a big system, and some people are falling through the cracks.” I’m curious to know your thoughts on how this part of the series was received–I know you were anticipating some pushback, since Aadhaar is a very controversial topic in India.

Anjali: I follow a lot of Indian media that writes about Aadhaar, and I know many people who work in law, policy, academics, and journalism in this space. In these spheres, the vast majority of opinions about Aadhaar are negative–the conversation is about the privacy loopholes, data issues, the fact that people don’t get access to benefits because devices aren’t working or if they are disabled. The Indian Supreme Court is still deciding whether it should be mandatory, and there are so many people in the media saying, “There’s no way I will ever subscribe to Aadhaar or put my details into that database because I know it’s leaking.”

On the flipside, I was in India towards the end of last year for quite a few months, and I’d have these discussions with my father, who is not in the thick of this debate and who isn’t too concerned with privacy issues. When he gets emails from the bank or his insurance company saying, “You need to link up your Aadhaar number to your account,” he’d just do it without questioning, because it came from an authority. But now even people like him are questioning Aadhaar, because there’s so much media focus on these issues.

The Aadhaar episode had the biggest response of the series. Maybe it’s because India is such a huge country. A few people said things like, “It’s great to focus on the negatives, but you’re a Western publication”–it’s an imperialist argument all over again, the West is going to mandate what us in the Global South should do, and does that mean that we shouldn’t try anything, and anything we try should be only things that you think are perfect? What are the solutions? I do think that these are valid perspectives.

A figure with a headset

Elizabeth: Was that the predominant type of feedback that you got, or was that the minority?

Anjali: The minority, and I was glad it was there. The predominant one is that we were right–that the discussions around Aadhaar’s data and privacy aspects are right. There were a lot of people who weren’t aware of this, and people from outside of India, that is, which I think is great, because that’s the kind of audience we did want to reach.

Elizabeth: Sure, not least because Aadhaar is being thought of as a potential model for other countries.

Anjali: It is. Fiji and Mexico and a few others are actually looking at it very seriously as a model.

Elizabeth: It’s interesting, because everything in India is at scale, essentially. It’s one of the largest potential testing grounds in the world. I didn’t know much about Aadhaar before we worked on this series–and actually, I still don’t have the full context for this, especially how the government feels about all the gaps in the system. They acknowledge they exist, right?

Anjali: Well, that’s a really interesting question. It would be silly to say that they aren’t aware of it–they obviously know these gaps exist. I think the problem is that when it was conceived, it was for a very specific purpose, and that has now ballooned out of proportion. The India Stack and various other services are plugging into it now, and as a result there are data breaches that the Indian government can’t really do much about. Recently a journalist was able to get access to Aadhaar for a small sum, and she published her experience in the newspaper. Apparently she received a summons from the government, which is completely the wrong response, in my opinion, and they soon walked that back.

I can’t say that anyone is taking this as seriously as it should be taken. They obviously know about it, and every few months there’s a different journalist–even a citizen journalist–highlighting another gap. I think there is an unspoken acknowledgement, but they haven’t addressed it formally, and I think that’s something that they should do. But where will you start? It’s so big now, years in the making, and they’ve got so far now that they can’t walk back like the U.K. government did, when they pulled the plug on their intended biometric scheme before it started.

Elizabeth: Yes, and it’s, what, a decade old? When you think about where we were technologically 10 years ago, it’s really grim, especially if you’re not making something that’s future-proofed. But I’m still thinking about the people falling through the cracks. We got a comment that was like, “Well, it works for most people, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and I thought that was unfair. We weren’t suggesting anyone throw Aadhaar out–you can criticize something without saying it should be shut down. But I think it underscored a very pervasive attitude when it comes to a lot of these identity questions. What happens for the small number of people –

Anjali: Yes, absolutely, though it’s complicated. We mentioned how Aadhaar isn’t set up to help disabled people. We got one comment from a doctor, a pathologist, who had worked in leprosy for decades. In the piece, we said some people with leprosy were unable to access Aadhaar benefits, because they might not be able to use fingerprint or retina scanners. The doctor said that of the 86,000 leprosy sufferers we cited, only a small fraction would have both hands mutilated, and there are very, very few people who have no hands and are also unable to use an iris scan. In terms of percentage, the failure to provide a service by the government may be very tiny, but for the individual concerned it is total–but can we suggest a suitable alternative?

A figure wearing a mask

Elizabeth: Shifting a bit, I’m wondering how current events and the conversation around privacy online has been shaping your approach to the topic. Did you already feel really worried about digital privacy rights six months ago, or has this brought things more into focus for you now?

Anjali: Yes, I was worried, but it definitely has brought things into focus. I think it has for a lot of people. It’s also coming at a time when GDPR is going into effect in Europe. I think a lot of people are now aware of their rights–their concerns are much clearer when it comes to their data.

Elizabeth: I’m thinking back to you talking about how people in the media were very plugged into the Aadhaar conversation, and now even your dad is plugged in. I feel like this is similar, it’s people who just said, “Eh, sure, I guess I signed up with Facebook on a site that is somehow linked to my banking details?” And now they’re, like, “”¦oh.”

Anjali: One of the reasons I think that privacy and data are one of the most popular topics for discussion in the Facebook group is because of the media. Not a week goes by where the media doesn’t have something to say about it, or where something isn’t actually happening of importance around that topic.

Elizabeth: I mean, I think the media should keep hammering on about this, because the vast majority of us are affected by this. And it’s very, very easy to feel completely and utterly powerless. There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about deleting Facebook, but an individual deleting an account is a drop in the ocean. A lot of the comments this series generated were about people feeling as powerless as I do, wondering whether we can do anything, and trying to look for solutions. I wonder if you could speak about that a little bit.

Anjali: Well a lot of people wonder whether we can do anything, as individuals. I think many companies are forced to give us those options now. Maybe I’m speaking from a position of privilege, because I’m seeing all the emails from companies thanks to GDPR.

Elizabeth: Yes, but even that–one of my American friends recently tweeted something like, “Why am I getting so many emails from every single company telling me this?” People in the comments were also confused, because Americans don’t know what this is, and the emails that I’ve been receiving, vague “we’ve updated our terms of service”–the vast majority of them don’t mention GDPR at all. That’s a little disconcerting to me, because I feel like a lot of Europeans know what this is, but a lot of Americans, and I imagine people in other parts of the world, are probably baffled about why we’re even receiving this. I don’t feel heartened by GDPR because I don’t actually think they’re being transparent. I just think they’re complying.

Anjali: Yes, this is true. They’re forced to do it, basically, this is the thing. It’s not like companies have suddenly become all altruistic and are placing the consumer first. Without the whip I guess none of it would be happening.

Elizabeth: It just makes me feel like they will do the bare minimum, no matter what we legislate. If you want them to be really explicitly transparent, to really explain what they’re doing, you have to compel them to do that. You can’t just say, “Here’s what you should do,” and they’re going to do it out of the goodness of their heart, because these companies do very little for that reason, if anything.

Anjali: Yes, it’s like what Mark Zuckerberg said during his testimony to Congress. There was actually a really good question from a congressman from New Mexico, Ben Ray Luján, who asked, “Can someone who does not have a Facebook account opt out of Facebook’s involuntary data collection?” Because, as he pointed out, people who do not have a Facebook account are asked to sign up to Facebook to delete the data that they never gave them permission to use.

Elizabeth: That’s bonkers. That should be illegal.

Anjali: It should, yes, but it just isn’t. It’s only because of Cambridge Analytica that Facebook is forced to answer those questions. I think consumers are powerless, and that’s why regulation is important, that’s why government is important. The whole series is about people who aren’t considered by governments and by corporations–but where’s the tipping point, I guess is the question. At what point do organizations and governments say, “OK, we need to think about this?” What proportion of people is big enough? 87 million? Or just a few?

A figure with a speech bubble

Elizabeth: OK, so we both feel like powerless individuals! I know that digital privacy seemed to be the most popular topic in our Facebook group–we’re all powerless individuals together, it seems–and I know there were some observations from group members that you wanted to highlight. This Facebook group, by the way, is a closed private group with a few hundred members, and the conversation there over the past few months has been fantastic.

Anjali: Yes–one group member, David Swanson, commented about the changing definition of what a data breach or hack is, when access to data is so badly policed:

I think there are interesting implications here for security that are yet to be fully understood, at least by the general public. How do we deal with something that isn’t necessarily a “breach”, “theft”, “hack” or other words that imply some kind of forceful accessing of data without permission, but instead deal with what appears to be data accessed through legitimate channels and then used for illegitimate purposes? What do we do when the architecture of these platforms is built around allowing this *type* of access to privileged data, if not necessarily intended for allowing use in this way?

There was also an interesting contribution from Ernie Schell, who compared direct mail marketing in the U.S. historically with how companies collect data now. He said what’s changed is the intent, not the action itself, which I thought was quite a useful observation.

And Parthasarathi Varatharajan referenced this Peter Diamandis quote and asked a thought-provoking question as well:

We need to look at this differently.

How do you see the below quote in the context of GDPR, Facebook-Cambridge Analytica, China’s rise in AI, Privacy by Design and competition?

“If the government regulates against use of drones or stem cells or artificial intelligence, all that means is that the work and the research leave the borders of that country and go someplace else.”–Peter Diamandis

Where do nations draw a line?

Elizabeth: I’d love to end on a personal note: did your individual ideas about identity shift as you worked on this series?

Anjali: It certainly got me thinking about the multiple aspects of my identity. Identity has never been a single-dimensional attribute, but in today’s world lines are really blurred when it comes to defining what identity is. I’m not sure many people consider that. I’m certainly more informed now; I’ve been forced to consider a lot of different perspectives, and if more people have reached the same point, I’d say we’ve achieved something.


Read the previous installment: “Watch: How an ID System Can Make Your Life Harder

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.