The Foresight Report about the future of identities forgets the challenges of identification and authentication

25 Jan 2013

For about a year, the Foresight team of the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, together with the Government Office of Science, have been working on a study about the future of our identities in the coming decade. This is to support UK Government Decision Makers to ‘gain a better understanding of the complex relationships between policies, individuals, and their identities, which interact in sometimes unexpected ways’ (p. 6). As the words ‘interact’, and ‘unexpected’ suggest the report exudes a nice, postmodern sensitivity that is often absent in mainstream policy discourse. Not from this report which draws from the input of many social scientists who presented their expertise in 20 evidence reviews, which are available to the policy makers and the public. These people know their stuff and the reviews provide up to date academic knowledge in accessible language. Ellison’s (2013) review for Foresight, on the influence of social media on people’s identity, for instance, draws from her early and ground breaking work on social media communities. Goodwin (2013) turns the attention of the Foresight team to the effects of identity fragmentation on the support of existing political parties and suggests that small extreme right parties may benefit from this. Briggs (2013), as a last example, takes the smart phone out of its relative invisibility in policy and futurist discourse and identifies it as both a driver and a carrier of identity exchange.

The report brings all of this work together, drawing on the high quality of the evidence reviews. Our work in IMPRINTS dovetails with this report. Yet our research also focus on a series of issues either not discussed or defined as falling outside of the scope of the report. The treatment of ‘hyperconnectivity’ is one such area.  The Foresight report focuses on hyperconnectivity as something that connects us all - as the Chief Scientific Advisor explains in his Foreword -: ‘mobile technology and the ubiquity of the internet enable people to be constantly connected across many different platforms‘. Elsewhere in the report this notion of hyperconnectivity as bringing ‘people’ together is also emphasized.  Our research suggests that this understanding of hyperconnectivity needs to be broadened out, to include being connected to organizations, institutions and corporations, and to ‘things’. Things, in addition, may be even inside you, as is the case, for instance, with connected medical implants.  But your identity will also be affected if you have a future persistent connection to your house, your car, your refrigerator and loads of other things (who will, by the way also ‘speak’ to each other); and all these ‘things’ will become platforms for hyperconnectivity in themselves.

A second point in relation to hyperconnectivity is that we need to be actually connected if we are to notice its impact. Or maybe we no longer have a choice in that matter. Regardless, one needs to be allowed into the connections, and that is where policy challenge  arises. This speaks immediately to our core research agenda, namely issues of identification and authentication. How do we prove to our friends, originations and things that we are indeed us, and that we are entitled to access our bank accounts, our house, our chat room, our tax forms, etcetera? Hyperconnectivity cannot exist safely if its nodes (us, others, organizations, things) are unreliable.  Hence, passwords, RFID cards, biometrics and so on, come inevitably into the discussion about the future of identity.  The Foresight Report rather too easily excludes ‘biometric identity’ from the scope of the report, focusing on social and biographical identity instead. That is fine, but these also do not and cannot exist in a hyperconnected world without identification and authentication.

Such forms of ‘Identity management’ (IM), as it is usually called, have been identified by different national and international agencies such as the OECD in 2011, as one of the main private, public and policy challenges of the future.  Some attention is given to IM in the report but here, like with hyperconnectivity, there is too little focus on how things are likely to develop in the future.  The focus seems to be rather on characterizing the present: ‘Younger people tend to be less concerned with privacy, but it is entirely possible that, over time, the amount of information about them available online will begin to be used in unexpected ways’ (p. 50).  ‘Surveillance technologies operated by the state and by the private sector offer opportunities for greater protection and public security, but there are also broader social effects to consider’(p. 50). Some of the evidence reviews speak more clearly to these particular elements (e.g. Wall, 2013).

Identity management and the kind of policy that is needed to govern its potentials and risks, are key areas of research, and form the core of a number of longer running research projects that were commissioned by the UK Research Councils.  Paul Longley and his team works on place attachment and identity management ( Sara Stevenage and her team have worked on the issue of which aspects and dimensions make up one’s identity focusing specifically on the convergence of online and offline identities (  We, IMPRINTS, concentrate on the wider nature of hyperconnectivity and its implications for identity.  Our research has shown that the tension between the multiplicity of our identities and the economic and technological pressures towards uniformity is an especially urgent future issue, as we argue in the last issue of Media, Culture and Society which also investigates these matters. 


Briggs, P. (2013) Will an increasing element of our identity be ‘devolved’ to machines? London: Government Office for Science.

Ellison, N. (2013) Social media and identity. London: Government Office for Science.

Goodwin, M. (2013) How might changes in political allegiances affect notions of identity in the next 10 years? London: Government Office for Science.

Wall, D. (2013) Identity related crime in the UK. London: Government Office for Science.