Virtuality and digital technologies have added innumerable nuances to the nature of our identity. European researchers are working hard to keep pace with the new identity paradigm.
What is identity? In the digital age, this has become one of the big questions. The multiplication of online personas, the numerous and increasing contexts where identity plays a role, and the perennial problem of establishing reliable, secure identity in cyberspace make this one of the bigger challenges that the information society faces.
FIDIS (http://www.fidis.net/), or the Future of Identity in the Information Society, is a network of excellence (NoE) set up to prepare Europe for the many emerging identity issues.
"As usual with research, particularly in a multidisciplinary project like FIDIS, we started out by defining our terms and looking at the nature of identity," explains Andrι Deuker of the Goethe University Frankfurt and a researcher at the FIDIS project. "What is the identity of identity?"
"We concluded that it is not one, single concept, but rather it is a host of pieces of information about an individual. So we came up with the concept of partial identities, where you might exchange your credit card information, for example, but wouldn't reveal your eye colour, or social security number."
So in the FIDIS network of excellence, identity are all those pieces of information that define a particular individual, from their DNA to how they like to take their coffee. Depending on the context, people will decide to reveal some information, but not all.
Such general statements provide the essential framework to approach a sprawling issue like identity, and are particularly useful for networks like FIDIS.
NoEs exist to create world-class expertise in a given scientific field by linking all the industry and academic players that contribute to a particular domain. Scientists, engineers, theoreticians, psychologists, legal experts and other social sciences can meet and get to know one another around a series of important problems in a particular field.
In this way, researchers in different areas, but working on the same problem, can learn about issues facing other disciplines. They make contacts and can help each other. The upshot is a much stronger research resource for Europe, and much greater standing across the world.
The future of identity in the information society is one of those big problems that can benefit enormously from this type of concerted effort. It is a complex and diverse problem, touching every area of life. It requires cooperation between many scientific, social and economic fields.
The FIDIS work programme was as ambitious as its topic, and included research on basic questions to leading-edge technologies like the PRNU.
Enter the PRNU
'Photo response non-uniformity' is an unwieldy mouthful that hides a really cool technology that can identify the camera responsible for any particular image. It works by looking at the information underlying a specific image.
Each digital camera sensor has a unique signature, like a fingerprint, and PRNU can spot that signature and use it to prove a particular camera took an image. The technology has obvious applications in forensics -- identifying, for example, a camera used to take a particular photograph in a blackmail or hostage case.
But it could also be potentially used for security, by confirming that a camera registered to a passport office took a particular image, or confirming that the right authority issued a specific security badge.
Other initiatives within the FIDIS network include high-tech ID, special radio frequency identity (RFID) tags. In one experiment a researcher was implanted with an RFID tag and sensors were able to track his movements within the research facility.
FIDIS also tackled more mundane -- and arguably more important issues -- like identity management systems (IMS). The European landscape is littered with a variety of diverse regulatory systems -- national identity cards are mandatory in Germany and France, for example, but don't exist in this way in the UK or Ireland.
Similarly, there are many different systems for managing ID, whether it is passport or social security databases. FIDIS looked at the range of IMS platforms available, and created a database of them. It is hoped that this work will lead to greater interoperability between systems over time.
Another focus was put on mobile identities because GSM subscriber identity modules (SIMs) are one of the first globally interoperable identity infrastructures. "And the related information gets richer and richer, including not only location information but more and more context information. This leads to opportunities, for example marketing, but also to new challenges with regard to privacy," notes Kai Rannenberg, professor at Goethe University Frankfurt and coordinator of the FIDIS project.
"Moreover, mobile communication infrastructures lead the way to ambient intelligence and the related challenges."
The FIDIS team also developed some compelling scenarios about the future of identity. It put together a very detailed 'story' about a couple living in a world of ambient intelligence, where the couple's preferences in music, lighting and temperature are all noted with a hotel booking, for example.
More urgent examples abound in this lengthy and detailed scenarios document, where the wife of the couple goes into labour while travelling. Here, all the relevant medical information is transferred in a way that only the attending physician can access the data.
And the scenarios deal with realistic situations too, where incompatibility between computer systems means information cannot transfer easily. The document, which received contributions from many of the major partners, touches on virtually every aspect of life and offers a realistic basis for discussion.
The work of FIDIS led to the publication of dozens of articles, the foundation of a new journal, and has set the scene for the development of identity technologies over the next decade.
Finally, insights and knowledge gained over the five-year FIDIS NoE have been federated in the book entitled 'The Future of Identity in the Information Society: Challenges and Opportunities', published by Springer in April 2009.
It means that, at least in Europe, the future of identity in Europe should not lead to identity crises.
The FIDIS project received funding from the ICT strand of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for research.
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