How many versions of your identity exist online?

6 Dec 2018

Image: © Helder Almeida/

PwC’s Kevin Gannon, a self-confessed blockchain enthusiast, hopes new technology will provide some much-needed transparency in the world of online identity.

When I was approached to write this column on digital identity, I was initially drawn toward the technology enablers. How digital identity and decentralisation can give people the freedom to reclaim their identity, their data, to have ownership. But we’ll get to that.

Taking a step back and looking at my own digital identity, I email, tweet, share photos, transfer money, I even buy my wine online. I do worry about identity fraud, though. From someone hacking into my Gmail or Twitter account and impersonating me; Cambridge Analytica analysing and maybe selling my data; to those who might break into my online banking and steal my money or, worse yet, those who might change my case of Malbec to a Merlot.

people watching man in glasses wearing khaki shirt and pants give presentation beside blurry blue screen.

Kevin Gannon. Image: TechWatch

In mentioning fraud and impersonations, I should share that there are many other Kevin Gannons out there. Loads. And, sometimes, I get signed up (using my own email address) for sites that I didn’t sign up for. I often receive shared photos from a Kevin Gannon who frequents somewhere in mid-west USA to spend Thanksgiving with friends. And, just a few times, I’ve received contracts for a Kevin Gannon who is a former NYPD detective and now supports crime show production. But I am none of those Kevins. To coin a phrase from The Greatest Showman, “This is me.”

But has online or digital identity blurred the lines and made it easier for me to actually defraud other Kevin Gannons? I would hope that with the emergence of new technologies, cybersecurity, encryption, and privacy laws and regulations that we as individuals are more protected online. But I understand that this has not always been the case.

As someone who embraces technology with open arms, I have been a big fan of the idea that I could have a single portfolio (or wallet, if you will) containing my various ‘identities’, from my birth certificate and passport through to my computer science degree and gym membership. (OK, you got me, even with my own digital identity I couldn’t prove that I go to the gym.)

‘Should I be worrying about a government tracking my every movement?’

But this really got me thinking, could this be more of a trust play? Having such a wallet would enable me to prove who I am, to show people they can trust me and, on the flip side, that I can trust them. When I go to open a bank account, the bank demands certain evidence from me. If I were to be operated on by a surgeon, shouldn’t I be able to demand evidence that they know how to fix a broken leg, know the right amount of anaesthetic to dish out or, indeed, if they are actually a doctor (of medicine)? I certainly think that we are moving in that direction.

Does this open the door to a Big Brother state? Should I be worrying about a government tracking my every movement? Being a big movie fan, I do think back to movies like Enemy of the State, with satellites following people around, government agencies tapping into phone conversations etc and, when in the backdrop of a ‘privacy bill’, the lead character’s wife questions: “And who will monitor the monitor of the monitors?”

As a blockchain enthusiast, I would hope that blockchain’s openness and transparency could be the answer.

New technologies being embraced, like blockchain, should and will enable this. Applications (or indeed ecosystems) built using distributed ledger technology, secured by digital signatures, offer the promise of increased transparency and increased protection to not only institutions but to individuals, too. Being able to have ownership of our data, and in effect our identity, hopefully gives us back a lot of power that has seemingly slipped away from us over the years.

Equally, it raises new questions: are we ready to own our own identity? Can our new, shiny digital wallet get hacked? Or, what if I lose it, can I get it back? Let’s find out.

By Kevin Gannon, solutions architect, PwC

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland