In pursuit of a single identity, online and off

Summary:A transatlantic team of researchers are working on establishing a system to track individuals' "super-identity" with the aim of cutting down on fraud and increasing security.

Researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom are undertaking an international effort to study identity -- in particular, how the existence of multiple real-world and digital identities impacts security.

The three-year research study is focused on the notion of a "super-identity," or a single, final ID. After all, we are all each just one person, and sooner or later all those aliases -- online or off -- roll up to a single "core" entity.

The problem: unreliable and counterfeit identification is a threat to any security system, from your corporate e-mail account to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

The researchers -- a team of specialists in automated biometrics, psychology, forensic anthropology, human-computer interaction, mathematical modeling, complex data visualisation and IT law from the universities of Southampton, Bath, Dundee, Kent, Leicester and Oxford, as well as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the U.S. -- hope their work will lead to a faster, more efficient way to combat the problem.

"The capacity to identify one another is vitally important," psychologist and project leader Sarah Stevenage said. "It underpins social dialogue, commercial transactions, individual entitlements to goods and services, and issues of legal and criminal responsibility."

Identity fraud and ripple effects from it cost the U.K. more than £2.7 billion (approx. $4.27 billion USD) a year, according to a 2010 study by the U.K.'s National Fraud Authority.

(Unsurprisingly, the project receives financial support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, though the Science and Technology Directorate's Visualization and Data Analytics Program.)

At first glance, a "core" identity seems like it would infringe upon privacy concerns. (The first stage of the project will focus on defining exactly which measures should be included.) But the researchers argue that unifying disparate identities will augment precisely that.

"With better tools for human identification, we will be more able to successfully protect our personal privacy and data security," Stevenage said, "whilst improving our ability to identify the true suspect in crimes against society."

This post was originally published on

Topics: Innovation


Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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