Digital Identity : The Need for Digital Identifiers Identity in the digital age
Identifiers are everywhere – we use them all the time without being conscious of their role. Some are more obviously identifiers than others (like the name of a colleague at work) and most are public in that they are used beyond a limited scope. Other identifiers are not intended for use outside a prescribed domain and are termed private. Interest in public identifiers has escalated in recent years with the increased awareness of the use of identifiers on the Internet.
One example of a public identifier is the Uniform Resource Locator (URL). These are discoverable using search engines, which use the location-resolving capabilities of the URL to link to documents that match a text query. Using a URL as an identifier ties the resource to its current network location. However it has a critical failing when used as an identifier. When the resource moves from one location to another for whatever reason, the id functionality breaks.
URLs belong to a general class of identification, the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI), which includes location-based identifiers and other schemes that allow the specification of identifier semantics alongside the rules to construct identity characteristic based on location. So, location-based identifiers, such as those described by the http scheme, have a given and particular semantic. As http, this semantic simply consists of ‘what is the resource at this location’. i.e. for any http URI it is possible to locate an item of content by dereferencing the URI using the http protocol.
Dereferencing is the process of taking an identifier and accessing the thing to which the identifier is referring. However, the semantic URL element above is precisely what makes the location-based identifier a poor and unreliable candidate for robust identifier strategies – they identify a location, not a resource, and are hence subject to broken link problems, known as ‘link-rot’
Provision : Achieving Governed Identity
The primary value of a “global persistent digital identifier” is to provide permanence of digital object identification; such an ID should be expected to be globally registered, validated and unique. Persistence in this case refers primarily to the permanence of the identifier and its associated resolution services rather than the permanence of the resource itself.
The move from current compartmentalised systems into an interoperable environment is the central challenge facing digital development this decade. In the quest for a semantic web, new technologies and systems have become available to address a crucial component in the information architectural landscape: Identification. In particular, it is at the data level that interoperability now needs to be advanced.
Public identifiers often become used in ways not anticipated when they are created. So it is critical to note and recognise this characteristic. It is possible to allow for additional uses/services which can be added in a systematic manner. Rather than requiring a prior knowledge about the uses to which an identifier can be put, services can be then be discovered.
In the same way that metadata allows the discovery of resources, identifiers allow the discovery of services (and hence content) available to a particular resource. This service capability is vital to the evolution and increased interoperability of distributed information systems.
Operating an identity provision at the data-level infrastructure of the Internet offers greater potential capability than is commonly used today, particularly to form “bedrock”, upon which a new era of digital services can be built. Significantly, such a data level service infrastructure allows the uncoupling of many important facets of information management: ownership, delivery location and management.
By placing internet identifier management at the heart of systems development and integration, it is possible to build applications that move beyond current compartmentalised restrictions to access externalised services and content.