Demystifying ‘digital identity’ in 3 easy steps

The phrase “digital identity,” as most people have come to know of it, isn’t entirely accurate. And despite its heavy use by the media and the tech communities, this phrase is often misused and framed within the wrong context – mainly, stating that our physical identity is melded together with the digital world.   

As a result, the general population has built up many misconceptions surrounding the phrase. For example, that our Facebook page, Airbnb profile or Amazon shopping history is a part of our identity. Or that the many profiles, pages and online platforms we maintain and interact with are digital interpretations of ourselves.   

In reality, our identity and the ‘digital world’ are two very different entities. Identity, in its purest form, is a state of being. It is who we are. It is how we present ourselves to the world. It is all of the expressions or representations of an individual. And these are all signs which point to the fact that our identity is and cannot be digital. 

It is important that we distinguish the two – especially as digital technologies continue to become even more intertwined with our lives. In doing so, we can start to understand how we can instead manage our identity digitally, rather than thinking our identities are digital.   

In order to begin deconstructing the common misconceptions surrounding our identities, there are several steps we as individuals can take to manage and communicate our identities to the fullest potential: 

Step 1: Understand your identity 

Before we define what an identity looks like and how we can manage our own digitally, we must first break down the basics of what an identity is. As mentioned above, identity is how we present ourselves in the world.   

Our identities are made up of made up of two things –  identification assets and systems – both of which can be presented in both the physical or expressive form. 

Identification assets are the variety of elements commonly used to identify an individual. These assets can include name, age, height and more. Not only are our identification assets what we’ve been born into, but also the more expressive identifiers we choose for ourselves including the clothes we wear, our hair color, education status and address. These too are all pieces of our identity, and the points we use to prove and verify who we are to those around us.   

Identification systems, on the other hand, are the collection of online platforms, databases and networks where our identity assets are stored. And among these identification systems, we can manage the many identification assets which make up our identity digitally. While these identity systems do not represent our actual identity, they are systems that we use to express ourselves to others. It is simply where each of our individual identities are presented online and where we choose to express ourselves online. For example, a Facebook profile, blog or personal website are all identification systems where we display our identity assets online. 

Step 2: Take a deeper look 

Over many centuries, governments and authorities have moved to formalizing our identity into systems and databases. And as a result, these data points representing our identity have been produced into physical and tangible credentials. We carry around these government owned and issued credentials – including driver's licenses, passports, medical insurance cards and more – to identify ourselves in a formal matter. From verifying your identity at airport security, to ensuring a person is who he or she claims to be when opening a bank account, there are a number of credentials used to express, represent and verify our identity.   

Though these credentials have been stored, printed and captured digitally by government entities, they are still intangible and ever-changing – just like our identity. For instance, if we change our last name, we must change our passport to match our updated identity. Or if we choose to move to a new part of the country, we too must update our licence to reflect those changes. In taking inventory of not only our physical credentials, but also the systems which we display our identities through online, we can begin to better understand where our identity lives as well as how we can start to manage our identity digitally.  

Step 3: Discover helpful resources 

From mobile platforms and websites, to social pages and apps, emerging digital technologies offer an abundance of resources to help us securely manage our identities. But knowing which resources are out there, and how they can help us manage our identity to its fullest potential, is the challenge.  

Take our social media profiles, online bank accounts and emails, for example. We have so many that it can be difficult to remember the passwords for each. As a way to manage all of the places where our identification assets live online, it’s important to take advantage of websites like LastPass, which can help you easily manage your growing list of online accounts and passwords. Additionally, apps like Credntia can help you transition your physical credentials, such as passports, driver’s licence or IDs, to a digital format. 

Because we live in a world where our identity is constantly changing, we have the ability to craft our own personal journeys. Just as our identities are unique to each of us (and ever-changing), the ways in which we manage our identities should be as well. We must begin to move away from traditional, physical systems of identification or ID's, and use more flexible, digital systems to manage our identity assets. By doing so, we can have more choice of and ownership over our own identities, as well as how we manage them – an opportunity which will only become more of a priority in the future. 

Image Credit: Luxas Alexander / Shutterstock