Who are we and how we perceive ourselves has been a constant question in human history. For centuries we have searched for something that could describe us. As humans we feel the need to identify with something.
Human identity is a mixture of values, beliefs, behaviour, skills and qualities, attitude and appearance that are influenced by childhood, family and social background. We don’t know when exactly humans first recognized that they had individual identities. Since the primal man, there was a distinction in the group. They could tell each other apart by their faces, the noises they made and the way they moved. They were identified by their strength, confidence and leadership skills. First tangible proof of shaping human identity could be the cave drawings, showing stencilled handprints, that were found in the western Europe. The first sign that a group of early humans was there.
With time, as people began to form language and communities they needed to distinguish and address one another, so they gave each other names or nicknames. When the communities were small just the name or a nickname were enough. As the population grew it became clearly necessary to additionally identify people. There were just too many Johns. It was the Romans who first developed the name system. The names came from peoples occupation, place of birth, specific traits, or from fathers name leading to names such as John the smith, Henry the short or Mary from Eastwick.
With time, those additional identification traits started to get passed on, and the nicknames became surnames. From nicknames arose last names like Armstrong, White or Blunt, from occupation: Plummer, Baker or Schmidt (Smith), from place of origin: Woods, Hill or Greenwood. In different parts of the world the nicknames were different from each other, but to this day last names like Smith or Taylor (deriving from an occupation) are very popular in english speaking countries, and last names such as Andersson (that are patronymic) are popular in Scandinavia.
Additional names have their origins in religion or status. More names indicated more respect. Children were also given names from their ancestors to distinguish the family tree. To keep the children safe, parents gave to a child a middle name of the saint that was supposed to protect their offspring.
Social identity begins with economic change and state development. First written mention of the census dates back to the Babylonians in 4000 BC, who used it to estimate how much food they needed to find for each member of the population. The Romans conducted censuses every five years, to keep track of their population. The census was used to determine taxes, provide a register of citizens and their property from which their duties but also privileges could be listed. Romans also kept records about their citizens’ birth and land ownership. Later, in many parts of the world, the Church was responsible for record-keeping. Every parish had a record of births and deaths of their followers and also marriage certificates.
With time as humanity developed quicker ways to travel the need for an identity document became more apparent. The first documents that resembled today’s passport appeared in XV century England. From 1540, Privy Council started to grant travelling papers that were named “passports”.
In 1829, the reforms of Robert Peel were enacted by the British Parliament. Though the Act is primarily known for establishing the Metropolitan Police of London there was also a mention regarding keeping the police records. The police were supposed to keep more detailed information about the citizens, and all of the people with records were supposed to have a separate file on them. This could be considered as the start of the personal identification number creation process. The invention of the negative-positive photographic system by William Henry Fox Talbot, ten years later, started the new age in the human identity process.
The need to confirm someone’s identity goes back as far as the identity itself. As society grew and divided itself economically, humans created ways to verify that a person’s identity was true. Throughout history there were many examples of identity verification methods, some communities used jewellery, or tattoos to confirm someone’s status, and ancient Mezopotamians created seals that confirmed personal identity.
In 1849 the Netherlands started to implement their own Personal Number system. Almost one hundred years later they issued personal identity cards that were lifetime identifiers for their citizens. The citizens of the United States each received a social security number which is used as a proof of identity, but it also allows the holder to pay taxes, receive wages and government benefits. Soon more countries followed and with the rapid development of technology the systems were computerized. New technologies allowed to create a database for all of the citizens, and all of them received an ID that proved their identity. In 2009 the Indian government started the Aadhaar project, the most ambitious attempt to provide identification to over 1 billion people in India. All of the citizens are supposed to get a 12-digit identity number, linked to their fingerprints and iris scans.
First IDs were paper based, in the form of a booklet, and handwritten. Paper based documents were exchanged to polymer ID cards, that we know and use now. Documents can contain our personal information like our photo, date of birth, nationality, residence address, but also digital signature and biometric data like our fingerprint.
Security features on the first ID cards were not sophisticated, mostly they were seals and stamps, background patterns and watermarks. Plastic cards allowed for a much more complicated security features implementation. With time those security features became even more complicated and hard to forge. Nowadays our ID cards have multiple security features like holograms, microprinting, complicated background patterns and optically variable ink. Additional layer of security provides the features that are only available in the UV light.
With the rapid development of technology, AI, and biometrics the identity verification has never been easier. There are so many tools that help to positively identify a person like fingerprints and hand recognition, facial, voice and iris recognition, DNA mapping and vascular pattern recognition.
With globalization the need to verify someone’s identity has spread worldwide. The services that are available now online like banking, shopping, medicine, stock exchanges, and more deal with sensitive information, and they need to comply with multiple laws not only in their own country, but also in the countries of their users. Additionally, acts regarding Anti Money Laundering and Know Your Customer procedures require certain businesses to keep track of their user activities. To answer the need of safe customer onboarding Fully-Verified offers video identity verification. The process allows users to be verified in real-time and checks their identity against their documents to make sure they are who they say they are.
The future of human identity is still changing with technological development. More security features are now available to everyone. Smartphones have fingerprint scanners, facial recognition systems and they are still evolving. In our phones we have applications that work as our Identity documents. Virtual world and real world merged together. Our constant presence in social media and quick access to information has affected our identity. Popularity is now measured in likes and followers and our perception of ourselves is dependent on other people’s acceptance more than ever. Soon we might have virtual avatars that will be able to engage in activities and social interactions that could resemble the real world. We could transform ourselves into anything that we want to be, and no longer be confined by our physical limits.
Future might also bring the creation of human and machine combinations. Many parts of our body can be replaced by mechanical components, already we rely on machines so much. Organ transplants and prosthetics are now very accessible. Our lifespan has increased and more than doubled in the last centuries. Future might bring brain implants, nanites and exoskeletons that would help with our disabilities and prolong our lives.
We are entering a new era where individuals can go beyond their physical self and create a virtual identity. New hybrid identity combined with our virtual and physical selves may arise. Our evolving communications technology can affect and change identities like never before since social changes and identities are determined by technological innovations. A new culture could emerge from the mix of physical reality and virtual reality. The future of our identity is still in question and our actions today may affect the change of how we perceive ourselves.