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Online identity

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My name is Paul Thomas and I can prove it. I can show you a passport with my name and photograph. Additionally, I can provide you with a driver’s licence with my name and picture. Also, I can flash any number of plastic cards with my name. Plus, I have a raft of commercial documents which bear my moniker and residential address.

In the physical world in which we live, it’s not difficult to establish who you are. But in the online world, it’s a different story. Some people do not reveal their true identity, preferring to use nicknames and other pseudonyms. Other Internet users represent themselves visually by choosing an avatar, an icon-sized graphic image.

Being anonymous on the web by adopting a fake identity is common. Advocates believe that having a fictitious digital identity is a good thing as it enables people to speak freely. Victims of abuse, whistle-blowers exposing wrongdoings and citizens of oppressive regimes will speak out without fear of repercussions, so the argument goes, if they are unidentifiable.

There is, however, a very destructive side to Internet users operating incognito. Utilising a behind-the-mask persona can give rise to “thuggish anonymity” and “faceless vitriol” which manifests itself in the form of bullying, racism and trolling. Internet trolling is defined as “the anti-social act of causing interpersonal conflict and shock-value controversy online”.

Most cyber-crime is committed by individuals or small groups who operate with fabricated identities. Malware code writers create viruses, worms, Trojans and spyware under the cover of (identity) darkness. Meanwhile, computer hackers use the veil of the Internet to launch devastating attacks on the computers of public and private sector organisations.

Not surprisingly, such cloak-and-dagger deception has led to a push to eliminate concealed online identities. A growing chorus is calling for more transparent and robust procedures to establish the bona fides of Internet users. Verification of online identity has become much more important given the exponential rise in electronic commerce.

While sites like Google and Facebook have ‘real name only’ policies, the days of Internet obscurity are far from over. As always, there is disagreement among governments about how to solve the problem. Much of the debate centres on balancing the need to protect privacy on the one hand while preventing cyber-crime on the other.

For European countries, the solution is a government-issued electronic ID card. Finland was the first to provide these in 1999. Estonia followed in 2002 and Belgium in 2003. According to The Economist magazine, 16 European states now offer their citizens electronic ID. The e-cards, which can include biometric data, authenticate users of online services.

In India, where many citizens lack any form of identity, the government has followed the European model. India is building a massive biometric database for its 1.3 billion people and enrollment is compulsory. It is one of the world’s most sophisticated ID schemes and includes iris scans and fingerprints. Each citizen is being assigned a unique 12-digit biometric identity number.

Meanwhile, other countries are wary of introducing a single, centrally run identity register. Australia and America, for example, do not have a national identification card because the electorate in both nations fears it would lead to a police state. While concerns about Big Brother are understandable and run deep, they should not stop nations from protecting innocent citizens.

Each year, a growing number of people are victims of cyber-criminals. Cyber-stalkers, computer hackers, card fraudsters, virus disseminators, information phishers, software pirates, email scammers and online paedophiles hide behind the anonymity afforded by the Internet to avoid detection and get away with crimes that could largely be prevented.

I have no doubt that the day will come when it will be illegal to log on to the Internet without providing proof of identity. This simple step will significantly curb the activities of miscreants who sabotage the integrity of the Internet. Until that time, my fear is that digital-crime will unnecessarily rise as the bad guys in this electronic battle are allowed to fly under the radar to escape detection.

I look forward to the day when the adage “on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”, is relegated to the annals of history. Pretend identities must be outlawed so that online and offline identities are one and the same.

Paul J. Thomas, CEO


avatar John Clark
Well done Paul
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CEO Paul Thomas