So, we’ve had the internet for a good while now. Has it changed you? Maybe. At the very least its exposed more of you; or, it’s coerced you into exposing more of yourself. Some of that information is new information — maybe information you didn’t have a channel for revealing before — while some of it is old information with finer detail. Maybe it’s not a stretch to say that your identity in the year 2012 severed from the internet wouldn’t be totally complete anymore. That’s the fundamental change at the heart of the three-year SuperIdentity project at the UK’s University of Southampton, led by the school’s Head of Psychology Dr. Sarah Stevenage. The goal, in the project’s words: “to work towards a rich understanding of identity which encompasses aspects that we reveal both in the real world and in the cyber world.” We had a lot of questions for Stevenage.
How do you feel about the current stability of identity? It seems to me at least that our situation currently in regards to technology and how we’re relating to it is still quite molten. I wonder what stable of results you can get this early.
In adults, identity, in the sense that it refers to ‘physical identity,’ is a fairly stable concept although the ways that we reveal our identity are diverse and expanding. With respect to psychological identity, researchers have debated over time whether some aspects of the self are stable over the lifespan and others show changes with time and maturation. In this sense, it might be useful to think about a ‘distributed identity’: I reveal part of me over here, and another part of me over there, and you have to put these pieces together to get a sense of ‘me.’
In the real or physical world, we have good scientific exploration of the cues through which we reveal identity, and the reliability associated with these cues. However, in the cyber world, the field is younger, and technological development means that the ways in which we reveal our identity are ever-changing and perhaps as suggested, more molten.
The SuperIdentity project will explore cues to identity in both the real and the cyber world, and it may well be that the fluid nature of cyberidentity presents as a more challenging concept regarding confidence in identification decisions based on cues from this space. The SuperIdentity project will also explore the capacity to link cues within and across real and cyberworlds to provide a more holistic indicator of identification, and this combination or fusion of information may then enable us to work towards the greater reliability or stability that you seek.
How did you come to this project? What is your personal interest in the subject?
My own interest in identity stems from my background as an experimental psychologist working particularly with an interest in forensic issues. In this sense, much of my research career has been focused on how humans identify one another. The face is an obvious and natural cue in this regard, and experimental psychologists have contributed 40-50 years of exploration into human face recognition, with fantastic advancement in our understanding of issues such as the processing that underpins recognition in healthy adults, its development in children, and its breakdown in patients with particular neurological damage. More recently, I have been involved in work exploring identification from patterns of gait, and from the voice, both of which can provide identity information, but neither of which are fully understood as yet.
The potential to explore other cues to identity, and to address the difficult issue of trying to ‘link the dots’ means that the SuperIdentity project is perfectly placed to address identity issues both in the here and now, and as we move forwards. For me, if this means that we are better able to identify criminals, or respond to threats, then this work is necessary and valuable, and will hopefully have an impact that is felt by those in our communities and societies.
I assume that you use social media and place some part of your own identity within it. What is your own relationship to social media, and how do you think that might influence how you approach the concept of super-identity at large?
I think that we all use social media to some extent and, in today’s society, it is difficult not to. However, within the SuperIdentity team, I am perhaps at the more cautious end of the spectrum in this regard! What this means is that I am very aware of the ‘right to be anonymous’ and there is an interesting legal debate in this regard at the present time. I am also aware of the desire that some may have to ‘hide in plain sight’ – to be visible but yet to maintain a smoke screen. Whilst most may not do this, those with a drive to maintain privacy may interact with technology and social media in a qualitatively different way. Appreciation of this is important if we are to gain a more complete picture of how people use social media to reveal or to manage their identity.
You’re assuming (I think) that identity has fundamentally changed in (internet generation) humans, that this part that is online is unquestionably “real” or that there is a discrete part that is. To what answer do you give to someone that does not ascribe to that assumption and thinks an online persona put forth is never, in any part, truly “real” because it’s always contaminated by imperfect, new mediums of representation. In other words, how do you prove scientifically that something represented online is real and thus belongs to the super-identity?
This is an interesting question and there are several issues within it. I’ll take each separately if I may.
First, I’m not sure that identity has fundamentally changed in the internet generation. However, I do think that expressions of identity have changed — I can now reveal my identity in more diverse ways. The young internet generation may have more trust in internet systems, and more familiarity with the internet space than an older generation and hence the way that each generation uses modern technology may be qualitatively different. Added to this, the internet now affords a historical identity legacy — an identity footprint which is more extensive and more durable than before because it is not limited by either mental awareness or memory. In essence, this means that people are more exposed, meaning that we have less capacity than ever before to manage our identity or to control what another knows about you.
Is it real? This too is an interesting question. Setting aside for a moment those who wish to deceive, yes, I think it is real but our identity is shaped by context and by medium of expression and thus seems to shift and change with time. Some might think of this as noise — as interference in the pursuit of an identification. An alternative may be to consider that we have a ‘core’ identity and, prior to this technological explosion, we could reveal that identity in a particular set of ways. Now, however, we have more ways to reveal our identity — in a bull’s eye metaphor, we now occupy the larger outer circle rather than the smaller inner circle. In essence, our self can be expressed truthfully but technology now enables more variance in that expression. In fact, research over the last 14 years now converges to suggest that people may be more honest or more ‘real’ online than in a face to face context.
You also ask how we can ‘prove’ truth or reliability. Within the SuperIdentity project, we do not claim to ‘prove’ this. However, we can and will explore the convergence of evidence across datasets and across measures. Hence, if measure A and measure B both map closely onto a single person, we can be confident in an identification from either, and each validates the other. In contrast, if measure A and measure B do not map closely onto a single person then we have less confidence in these measures and, within our overall framework, we may choose to disregard information in which we place little faith.
Can you give an example of a legal situation in which the super-identity concept might be useful?
Many of our established biometrics already meet evidentiary standards whereby identifications can be admissible in court and understood and accepted within a legal framework. However, legal admissibility is a topical issue again, especially in the light of a recent recommendation in Scotland to downgrade fingerprint evidence from evidence of fact to evidence of expert opinion.
The SuperIdentity project will be able to contribute to these issues through exploration of the increased confidence that might be obtained in court through fusion of measures, and through the exploration of legal admissibility with cybermeasures alongside physical measures. As a result, the synthesis of information that underpins SuperIdentity may inform court proceedings, and the intelligence processes that sit beneath them.
Legally speaking, how would you relate this to forensic profiling? Do you think concepts of super-identity can evade the very real problems in profiling? Can you anticipate new legal issues arising from deployment of super-identifications in the legal system?
Forensic Profiling explores the relationship between patterns of behaviour, and the person with a view to using behavioural evidence rather than physical evidence to indicate a suspect type. There may be several limitations to such an approach, not least of which may be the reliance on data for which provenance or truth cannot be established. We are mindful of this issue, and the SuperIdentity project will need assured data provenance to determine the trustworthiness of a source or of the information from that source. In the context of changing policy regarding information privacy, these legal, ethical, and social acceptability issues are critical and their consideration is interwoven into every stage of the SuperIdentity project.
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