Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The crises of digital identity

Had Nandan Nilekani read the story of Stacy Snyder, he would have thought twice before launching the ambitious UID project. The story of Stacy goes like this: by spring of 2006, the 25-year-old single mother had completed her coursework and was looking forward to become a teacher. Summoned by university officials, she was told she would not be a teacher, although she had earned all the credits, passed all the exams and completed requisite practical training. She was denied her certificate, she was told, because her behavior was unbecoming of a teacher.

Shockingly, an online photo showing her in costume wearing a pirate’s hat and drinking from a plastic cup had done the trick. The university argued that the online photo was unprofessional since it might expose pupils to a photograph of a teacher drinking alcohol. Uploaded for the fun of it, the innocent act had proved costly. Not only Stacy’s offer to offload the photo got turned down, her law suit against the university wasn’t successful either.

Stacy’s case may sound exceptional, but it is not. Dozens of cases of profound embarrassment, and even legal action, have occurred since then. Curiously, the university's position does not reflect the validity or stupidity of its decision; instead it is about the importance of ‘digital identity’. The internet remembered what the likes of Stacy had long forgotten.

In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history and analyses the manner in which this virtue has been undermined by digital technology. The trouble, argues Viktor, is that cheap storage and easy retrieval do not allow outdated information to fade away. The past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse.

Delete broadens the ‘privacy’ debate to encompass the dimensions of time. It provides well-balanced account of the challenges we face in a world where our digital traces are saved for life.

While the economists argue that better information increases efficiency, the question remains whether humans can live in peace with their identity being stored, and quite often misused or misinterpreted for posterity? On a societal level such information enables policy makers to adjust policies before problems have gotten out of hand. But at a personal level, digitized personal details can be seen as an infringement on one’s privacy.

With background in business and technology, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger vividly depicts the legal, social and cultural implications of a world that will no longer remember ‘how to forget’. Digital remembering, argues Viktor, undermines the important role forgetting performs (to be forgiving to its members and to remain open to change), and thus threatens us individually and as a society in our capacity to learn, to reason, and to act in time.....Link

Delete - The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger
Princeton University Press, New Jersey 237 pages, US$ 25

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