Book Report: Olivier Ertzscheid, What is Digital Identity Issues, Tools.., Marseille, OpenEdition

As a lecturer in information sciences and communication at the University of Nantes, Olivier Ertzscheid provides an overview of the fundamental issues that every Internet user needs to consider with respect to digital identity. He describes these issues mostly in an analogical and metaphorical way in order to ensure that his ideas are easily understood.

In order to address the topic, he provides a comprehensive definition of digital identity, before developing the related issues and the risks which are likely to arise in the future. E-reputation being presented as the main issue related to digital identity. In order to develop these issues, the author focuses on search engines and social media while at the same time presenting the legal remedies and other solutions provided by the private sector.

As to the definition of digital identity, the author adopts a chronological approach, going back to the SAFARI case in 1974 which concerned an automated system for handling administrative files in France. He argues that until the mid-1990’s, digital identity was primarily a question of “digital user IDs” in which data security was the dominant concern, particularly for businesses and public administrations. He suggests that the issue of “personal privacy” began to emerge towards the end of the 1990s and through the early 2000s with the emergence of large social networks from 2003 onwards. The first social traces of the digital identity issue then emerged from 2005 onwards. In the light of this chronological order, the author defines digital identity as the total sum of digital traces relating to an individual or a community which can be made up, consciously or unconsciously, of three main categories: “profile traces” (representing who I am), “browsing traces” (representing how I behave) and “written or declarative traces” (representing what I think). Among these three categories of digital traces, the author believes that our browsing traces, which we mostly leave unconsciously on the network, are central to our digital identity. He suggests that the services that we use contribute to engineer identity transparency via their practice of identifying and tracing users.

Similarly, the circle of digital identity goes from identification through authentication (technical procedure of verification such as a password), or certification (by a third party such OpenID protocol) in order to finally obtain authorization to access an online service. He argues that this process turns into a vicious circle in which it is the system itself which obtains authorization to access the user’s resources. Based on this identification process, online services have easier access to our digital traces which have an economic value. Therefore, online users document their digital identity literally, lastingly and in an increasingly transparent manner.

As the author argues, search engines and social media are two prominent examples of the digital identity market. They present an eminent risk to our digital identity. As for search engines, including neighborhood search engines and other aggregators, they have a central role in letting people know everything about others. As he points out they are identity-making machines interested in the earliest traces of digital identity and have access to our search history. The act of monitoring and tracking is mostly done by cookies and similar techniques. Ertzscheid notes that what matters most for search engines is to strengthen their economic model. Google, as a search engine, is indexing all available information while Facebook, as a social media with 900 million active users, is creating a complete map of the connected world capable of visualizing the interrelationships between everyone on the planet. These two services could put in peril the privacy of Internet users.

The author believes that the idea of privacy on social networks is nonsense at best. He argues that if the web is a public space, then there is no reason that social networks can be a private space. In this regard, the author refers to Danah Boyd who describes social networks as “semi-public”, arguing that four properties of the networks breed confusion between public and private: “persistence”, “searchability”, “replicability”, and “invisible audience”. Ertzscheid adds two other properties to Boyd’s list: “profiling” and “document integrity”. He believes that we need to learn to navigate this semi-public space if we want to avoid certain risks, such as those involving relations with employers.

The author goes on to define “reputation” as what the others say about a person (personal branding) and argues that it is the main issue related to digital identity. In fact, the most serious issue regarding online reputation concerns online defamation.

Ertzscheid believes that the importance of digital identity and e-reputation is such that our identity is in danger. He invokes psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describing the typical process of identity construction among users in which the need to be held in high esteem by others is considered to be secondary to needs for self-actualization, but more important than others of a social nature such as love and belonging, the need for safety and physiological needs. The need for high esteem leads us to adopt various strategies in order to construct and manage our digital reputation.

The issue of e-defamation has already given rise to an economic sector known as the “e-reputation market”. Regarding ways in which we might control our reputation and counter online defamation, the author suggests four cleaning methods. The first involves explicitly requesting site managers and search engines to remove incriminating content based on Right to be forgotten. The second involves drowning or buying negative results. The third method involves taking legal action or hiring a lawyer to instill the fear of prosecution. In this regard, some legal safeguards exist to oblige search engines and social networks to use personal data in a reasonable way and for a limited length of time. The fourth method is the coverage of e-reputation protection risks by insurance companies.

The author ends his book by describing the three musketeers of digital identity as granularity, porosity and percolation. By this metaphor, he supports the interconnection between different online services which contribute to tracing us. Finally, as the author indicates, our digital identity must not be left to major online corporations to use as they please. Users must have more control over their digital identity. He also points out that in addition the legal and economic solutions to the problem, there is fortunately also the constant pressure exerted by organizations and associations working to protect digital rights and freedoms.

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