Some notes on Identity and Identification

Here are some excerpts from the identity article that I mentioned yesterday, in case you find it useful for your work. For context, I should say that, at the time, I was working on my PhD investigating money laundering detection systems, and that I wrote an opinion piece about identify fraud detection systems.


The term ‘identity’ refers to a set of attributes that define a person.


A distinction is made between the ‘I’ (the perspective accessible only by the individual self) and the ‘Me’ (referring to the social attributes). The ‘Me’ can be further divided into an implicit and an explicit component, the former referring to how a person perceives herself and the later referring to how this same person is perceived and represented by others. That is, identity is composed of a living person (the ‘I’) and her relation to the external environment (the ‘explicit me’), the two being modulated by the (un)conscious perceptions a person has of herself (the ‘implicit me’).


So, we can say that identify has a private and a public layer, and that it is context dependent.



The term identification refers to the process of representing someone’s identity. It is limited to the ‘explicit me’.


There are many possible sources of identity information. Some are permanent such as one’s DNA, and some temporary, such as one’s employment status. Additionally, the attributes used to identify someone in a given context, say someone’s legal identity, may be utterly irrelevant in another context, such as someone’s biological identity. Someone’s financial transactions are irrelevant for the purpose of establishing the biological identity of a person, but may be critical in establishing that same person’s criminal identity.



Identification plays a crucial role in social life. It mediates access – to a building, to a social benefit, to privileged information… And it allows the monitoring of access to, and use of, resources. As a result, failures in identification carry risks for the person being identified, as well as the person or entity that seeks the identification.


Reliable identification must possess the following characteristics:

  • Refer to attributes that are relevant for the context – e.g., psychometric tests may be a better predictor of a person’s ability to cope under pressure than, for instance, that person’s self-assessment
  • Acknowledge that the attributes will not represent the whole of the person’s identity – the identification will only represent a subset of the person’s explicit ‘me’
  • Rely on explicit attributes – Implicit identification processes are charged with social and technical biases
  • Use artefacts that are difficult to falsify – e.g., someone’s professional skills are more reliably assessed by a test or that person’s known past professional successes (if in a relevant area) than by an entry in the person’s CV.


For a more elaborate distinction between the terms identity and identification see the report “Identity management systems: identification and comparison study” available at

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