3 urgent questions to ask as we navigate a new digital identity

The meaning of digital identity stretches to encompass not only digital attributes about yourself, such as your email address or content preferences – but also how “human” you (or your avatars) are.

The meaning of digital identity stretches to encompass not only digital attributes about yourself, such as your email address or content preferences – but also how “human” you (or your avatars) are. Image: Accenture Library

David Treat
Senior Managing Director, Accenture Innovation, Incubation Group Lead
Marie Wallace
Managing Director, Digital Identity Lead, Accenture
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  • As we spend more time in the digital world, we inhabit a range of digital manifestations that occupy a sliding scale in terms of how "human" they are.
  • Digital identity now involves authenticating this humanity for avatars across a range of digital experiences.
  • At the same time, it must balance this with other issues, such as privacy, safety and liability.

As digital transactions and interactions in 2D and 3D spaces become more and more prevalent, the meaning of digital identity stretches to encompass not only digital attributes about yourself, such as your email address or content preferences – but also how “human” you (or your avatars) are. Navigating a new digital world starts with asking the right questions.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about digital identity?

What does it mean to be human in the digital world?

We don’t often think about how we recognize a person as being human in the physical world. We are hardwired to recognize humans by using a multitude of cues and senses. However, as we spend more and more time in the digital world, and as artificial intelligence (AI) allows for digital manifestations that are increasingly human-seeming, the question of our humanity becomes a critically important consideration.

This idea of being able to identify as “human” in a 2D or 3D world will not be binary; humanity will be perceived on a sliding scale. For example, today we see avatars that are digital representations in the metaverse with a real person sitting behind that avatar. Soon we will have the ability to create our own personal assistant (agent) that can act on our behalf and perform tasks for us. In this type of AI-powered digital world, an avatar may represent a person, an AI version of that person or a completely synthetic person. The avatar could even represent a company, object, or other non-human entity – and will do so across experiences and contexts.

This blurring of the boundary between human vs. digital, between one experience and another, raises important questions about how we manage identity in a digital world, such as: How might we balance the right of someone to protect their identity with the right for someone else to know it? It also raises important questions on how we can realize a world where interactions can be safe, secure and trusted.

Why do we need a new approach to digital identity?

Digital identity was originally built to allow someone to identify and authenticate themselves for access to a digital service. However, the digital world is no longer siloed or binary; physical and digital services blend, and people expect a seamless user experience as they move between experiences.

To realize a world that safely combines the physical with the digital while respecting an individual’s rights and grounding interactions in trust, we need an architecture that allows an individual to flexibly share different aspects of their identity for different types of interactions. I may need to prove that I am a real human living in Ireland and am over the age of 16 so that I can create a social media account. Or maybe a synthetic human needs to verify that they work for Acme Corp as a virtual assistant. The ability to share our trusted identity data in a user-driven, private, portable and secure manner across channels will become increasingly important in a highly personalized, data-driven, AI-powered digital world.

With the advances in wallet technology, decentralized digital identity, privacy-preserving data-sharing techniques and data structures, authentication and open standards, the technology exists today to build the foundations for a new digital identity. What’s missing are conversations on how we govern digital identity in a dynamic and evolving digital world.

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Who will define the rules of the road?

Our new data-driven, AI-powered digital world will redefine what it means to be human and introduce new challenges that sit at the intersection of technology, policy, society, government and business. There's no simple answer for how we navigate this new world. Some of the most critical areas that need discussion include:

  • Individual choice – in the digital world, I have the right to choose whether to disclose my information. But others also may have the right to know who, or what, they are interacting with. In what contexts am I required to disclose my identity, and to what degree?
  • Safety – digital interactions can be fraught with safety issues like fraud, theft or harassment even today – and grow more complex as we introduce new digital tools. How might we provide guidance and governance to mitigate safety risks, while still providing choice and privacy to users?
  • Liability – when “humanity” is non-binary, it’s less clear who is liable when things go wrong. For instance, if a smart assistant initiates a bank transaction that was unintended by the individual, what recourse is there – given the assistant was authorized to act on the individual’s behalf? Who is liable for the damages caused?
  • Trust – ultimately, we need ways to embed trust throughout 2D and 3D digital worlds – and trust in the digital identity systems and frameworks that support our interactions. How can governments and organizations work together to establish trust networks for digital identity?

Digital identity from the 2D to the 3D digital world has a new multidimensional nature and requires problem-solvers in the technology, policy, legal and human spheres. There’s a lot to unpack here and won’t happen overnight or in siloes; it starts with asking the right questions and working out the answers collaboratively. This is why we engage in the work with the Forum across important initiatives like Defining and Building the Metaverse and the AI Governance Alliance.

Have you read?

We are sitting at a crossroads, where the decisions that we make today will impact the paths we, as a society, take into the future. We know that we want a digital society that will value individual rights, create opportunities for all citizens, and allow them to participate in the digital society safely and securely, maximizing everyone’s ability to learn, grow, and live a productive and happy life. At the heart of this data-driven, AI-powered society is digital identity data that is exchanged to make a digital society work. Getting this right will be critical to our future.

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