Losing one’s identity in a cloned world

Losing one’s identity in a cloned world

Roger Marshall a computer scientist, a newly minted Luddite and a cynic

Isn’t it time we asked ourselves whether IT companies should occupy every nook and cranny of our lives and dictate our purposiveness in the world?

In our mad rush to digitise our daily lives and benefit from the latest innovations that the IT industry has to offer, we, as nation-states and as individuals, have lost our sense of identity in the translation process. We have been barcoded and QR-coded into submission. We carry a smartphone wherever we go – a form of electronic bracelet usually reserved for people under house arrest or prisoners out on parole.

When one engages in nothing more than the simple act of filling out a form on the Web – be it to apply for a job or visa or passport, buy some consumer product or just look up a piece of information – one is automatically viewed either as a customer or as a suspect in the Web’s dichotomous world.

A nation-state’s sense of identity is usually bound up in a set of unique artefacts – its name, its flag, its passport, its currency. The name provides clues on the nation’s political and religious identity while the flag serves as a language-independent visual symbol. The passport serves to identify the nation’s citizenry to the rest of the globe while its currency serves as a medium of exchange, easily identifiable by its citizens, each of whom has a distinct identity, for conducting business transactions involving goods and services.

How independent can nation-states truly be if they outsource the printing of their passports, visas, licences and currency to other countries, indeed ones that once colonised them and which, in return, have outsourced to them plastic debris and electronic waste? Bilateral technology transfer works wonders, don’t you think!

In case you don’t know, four, yes, just four, companies – Thales Group, IN Groupe, and Idemia -- all based in France -- and Semlex, based in Belgium –print the passports for more than 65% of the countries in the world. These same companies also print the currencies, visas, postage stamps and driving licences of numerous countries, most of which are in Africa, South and Central America, and South/Southeast Asia. How did this come about? The answer lies in the fact that most countries in the global south do not have the highly IT-centric production facilities to generate their own secure, tamper-proof government documents. If any of these companies were hacked into, you can bet that such information will never be publicised.

How secure can a nation-state be if it relies on cryptographic devices imported from elsewhere to protect its diplomatic and other government communications? Or, for that matter, relying on foreign plane and arms manufacturers to supply state-of-the-art electronics-loaded weaponry when such weapons can be easily rendered inoperative from remote locations? Incidentally, Thales Group is also a major defence contractor with significant interests in facial recognition systems and cryptography; it has several offices in New Delhi and Bengaluru.

The Swiss are known the world over for their chocolates and precision clocks. Not so well-publicised is the fact that they have also been selling, with US and German backing, ‘secure’ cryptographic devices (with backdoors -- no extra charge!) to insecure countries for more than 50 years. These days, AI-enhanced ones such as Pegasus from Israel are also available. No, not the flying horse from Greek mythology but its 21st-century software avatar, capable of wrecking numerous lives, of anti-establishment journalists, in particular.

How independent can you, as an individual, be if the software you are using forces you to contort your name or your address or date to fit the procrustean format that the software designer has chosen for you? Not everyone in the world has a three-part name – first, middle and last. But almost all forms you fill out on the Web have this structure. In this diverse world of ours, some people have just one name, yet others six or seven. An individual’s sense of identity is closely related to their name. Names are a huge source of information since they can be used to specify gender, marital status, birthplace, nationality, ethnicity, religion, position within a family, even caste, class and occupation.

Would you like to know what IN Groupe’s corporate slogan is? “The right to be you. Identity is a fundamental right, and IN Groupe helps defend it.”

Main Street, Europe or Main Street, America is Main Street, Everywhere – be it Benin, Bolivia or Bangladesh. Bharat included.