I Am Not a Number (Or An Email Address): The Problem With Online Identity

I Am Not a Number (Or An Email Address): The Problem With Online Identity

I Am Not a Number (Or An Email Address): The Problem With Online Identity

I pop up on You and Yours later today talking about disposable email addresses and phone numbers. These are near-instant alternative/fake identities you can use online or off when you don’t want to give out your real details. For example, you might use a disposable email address from someone like Mailinator to sign up for a discount voucher when you don’t want the shop concerned to keep spamming you with offers. Or you might use a temporary phone number — not so widely supported in the UK yet but coming soon — when placing a classified ad, be in it on Gumtree or in your local paper. As soon as you receive your voucher or sell your item, the temporary details can be disposed of.

These disposable contact details raise an issue with the nature of our online identities. In the physical world our identities — or our names at least — are distinct from a means of contact. Just by knowing my name you can’t send me a message. In fact, owing to the number of people who might share my name (OK, not many in my case), the number of different places I might live or phone numbers I might have, without me giving up some details either directly or to a third party database, it is very difficult for you to contact me from just my name.

Online — and I’m including the mobile phone as part of being ‘online’ — the two are indistinguishable. Having an online identity usually means being contactable in some way, be it through your email address or phone number, or through the social network on which you have a username.

This is at least in part responsible for the fact that even if we don’t use these disposable services, we often have multiple online identities. A work email address and a personal email address. Work phone and personal phone. Twitter, LinkedIn profile and Facebook.

But which is the ‘real’ us?

The answer doesn’t matter when it comes to signing up for voucher codes. But what about when it comes to matters of finance or law? Buying a house or getting a job? The more our lives are lived online, the more the evidence of our online lives becomes legitimate territory for our less frivolous interactions.

How does an individual or company get a feel for the ‘real’ you when you hold multiple identities? To put it another way, how does a mortgage lender decide you are a good risk or a bad risk, when most of the evidence for your life and career are online? Which version of your online identity do you want them to trust?

Lots of people have examined the problem of some sort of verified online identity — one that confirms you are you. The best we have today is some sort of aggregation: looking at the collection of profiles that may be you through services like Rapportive.

If we are to have a single, verified online identity, it will need better protection than a username and password. As Deloitte highlighted in its TMT predictions, 10,000 words cover 98.1% of all passwords, and it doesn’t take a machine long to try 10,000 options.

A single, verified identity will also need strong filtering and segmentation, so that we can define who can know what about different areas of our lives, and importantly, who can contact us. If you only have one true identity replacing email addresses, phone numbers and social profiles, you certainly don’t want it loaded with spam.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Humanity series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Humanity page.

Tom Cheesewright


Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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