The Difference Between Digital Identity, Identification, and ID

– Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital's Jonathan Donner unpacks the nuance of these three related, but critically separate, terms

The Senior Director for Research sets out a helpful framework to more easily distinguish between digital identity, identification and ID – and lays out why it's critically important to strive for clarity.

His over-arching division of the terms proposes that:

  • Identity is a concept: the sum of the ways in which we prove who we are to the world in relation to other people and institutions

  • Identification is a process: the transaction, system or act through which we prove who we are

  • ID is a thing: a physical artifact, such as a passport

Donner flags the inherent difficulty of talking about identity in our digital-first world:

The interplay between identity, identification, and ID is amplified in the digital era. That is, the lines between who we are, where we go, what we say, and what the state knows about us have never been more blurred. That blurring demands more clarity in our terms.

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Building on these core distinctions, he also addresses identity systems (the whole network of technologies, administration and people required in the process of identification) and identity ecosystems (the totality of different identity systems at work).

Finally, drawing on the application of "legal identity" in the Sustainable Development Goals, he notes how prefacing the term in this way modifies it to make it a binary concept – something you either have, or don't – which is helpful in a practical sense in addressing the "digital divide" in this case. But it should be remembered that identity itself is anything but binary – it is an ongoing negotiation, and conversation that he invites us to add to.

In his own words:

Our careful use of identity, identification, and ID helps us remain cognizant of the fact that the challenge doesn’t end with the crossing of any binary, once people “have a legal/formal/official identity.” There are ongoing processes of negotiation and cultivation of identity that require maintenance. In the digital age, administrative identification and broader social, political, economic identity can never be detached.

For instance, recently, a number of Rohingya, staying in camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, went on strike demanding, among other things, that their smart card IDs (artifacts) issued by the UNHCR as part of an identification system use the word “Rohingya,” rather than “forcibly displaced Myanmar national.”

In another part of the world, through our ongoing research in Brazil for UNICEF, we spoke to transgender youth frustrated by their inability to change the name or gender on their administrative birth certificate (and ID artifact) until age 18, which left them with an administrative artifact out of line with their evolving social identity. Moments such as these encapsulate the interplay of several of the concepts we discussed in this note; importantly, such moments occur in ecosystems where identities, identification, and ID artifacts are interconnected.

Jonathan Donner, Caribou Digital