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Entering the third age of digital identity

(Image credit: Image Credit: Dom J / Pexels)

It isn’t just the Facebooks and Googles of the world that are hoovering up the data we leave about ourselves online and using it for their own gain. After all, monetising user data has been the dominant business model in the digital economy for nearly two decades.

Don’t let lobbying and marketing campaigns fool you – this business model is fundamentally incongruent with privacy. These services were never designed to be security- or privacy-first. And so, consumers are given a false sense of trust when it comes to how they think, or want, companies to protect their data.

Instead, consumers shouldn’t be bound to the services and social media platforms they use. Yes, data is a currency with which to negotiate with brands (i.e. your preferences in return for a discount), but to take control of who has access to our data, we need to adopt a new mindset. 

Digital independence must be at the forefront of our minds. And to understand what digital independence is all about, we need to delve deeper into the concept of digital identity. More specifically, we need to understand how digital identity has become integral to our society.

What is identity?

Our identity comes down to how we are perceived. This can be through face to face interactions, and the information we voluntarily share with those we meet. In this respect, we control the information we want to share, when we share it, and thus how we are perceived.

A digital identity changes that paradigm completely. While we are still able, in some respects, to choose what information we want to share online, we’re often forced to part with data in order to sign up for new services. Along the way, we might also thoughtlessly or unknowingly share information or insights about ourselves. As brands connect the dots between the information we’ve volunteered and the information we might not know we’ve shared, our digital identity becomes much more complex.

As a result, digital identity a confusing, fragmented, unavoidable part of our lives. Digital identity is a pre-requisite for many critical services and has much higher value than before, as the companies and institutions we entrust our data to look to leverage it for their own gain.

Entering the third age of digital identity

It wasn’t always like this. As the internet has grown in both influence and reach, digital identity has gone through its own distinct changes, or Ages.

The First Age of digital identity was about management and containment. At the dawn of the internet, people slowly began to trust a small number of favourite service providers with volunteered information. E-commerce came into existence, and people had an easy to manage relationship with the limited digital service providers they chose to use.

The Second Age of digital identity started when the internet became far more widespread and was adopted as a part of daily life. This new Age was more complex and fragmented. We became much more aware of the extent to which our data was being used by web companies and other online giants. Surveillance Capitalism, or the commoditisation of personal data, was born, and we began to realise that we are all part of it. This is where the struggle for control of our digital identities began.

We’re now in the Third Age of digital identity. Connected technology is all around us, and more of our lives are online than ever before. We are also beginning to understand the extent to which our data is collected and commoditised. We’ve realised that, in the digital economy that we live in, a secure and controlled digital identity is essential. However, with the internet playing a role in all aspects of our lives, the control over and access to our digital identities that third parties have is growing – and this is worrying.

Like it or not, our lives are shaped by the digital footprint we leave wherever we go. Every click, every second we spend looking at an article or video is constantly being analysed by the applications that we use daily. This obsession with engagement and personalisation has created echo chambers, amplified misinformation campaigns, and mobilised extremists. These same underlying technologies dictate many other parts of our lives: who we see on dating apps, how much our insurance policies cost, and our fitness for a new job.

Raise the flag

We should not have to worry about trading privacy and control in for access to the technology we want and need. So, what can we do to become digitally independent of all the services that cross-share our data for their own benefit? How can we attain our digital independence, similar to the First Age, where we had the choice of who we shared our data with?

Digital independence is crucial for a safer and more secure Third Age, but it requires taking matters into your own hands. There are some simple but effective steps you can take to do so; a starter could be eschewing single sign-on and using a decentralised password manager to create unique, super tough passwords for each website or service you use. This prevents the sharing of data and cross-advertising. It also makes cross-platform tracking from a single entity like Facebook far less invasive than a Single Sign-On function (as in the instance of the Login with Facebook function), and prevents you from storing all your eggs in one basket.  Password managers should automatically enter account credentials on every site, and on every device, you use, so you don’t have to try and remember each and every password for all of the online accounts you have.

Digital Independence is a state that all netizens should aspire to reach, and only through the full control of our digital footprint will we achieve it. Now that more and more companies such as Mozilla and Apple are positioning themselves as privacy-first brands, there are more resources than ever to help you take control of your digital identity. The Third Age of digital identity is at an inflection point: where companies realise that consumers are caring more and more about their own data, and are realising that the data they had is no longer an asset to them, but a burden to protect.

Emmanuel Schalit, CEO, Dashlane