SOLUTION: University of Maryland Digital Ethics Challenges Article Summary Paper

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The ethical challenges of digital identity
Home / Internet
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NOVEMBER 7, 2019
The ethical challenges of digital identity
by Armen Khatchatourov, The Conversation
Credit: CC0 Public Domain
The GDPR recently came into effect, confirming Europe’s role as an example in personal data protection.
However, we must not let it dissuade us from examining issues of identity, which have been redefined in
this digital era. This means thinking critically about major ethical and philosophical issues that go beyond
the simple question of the protection of personal information and privacy.
Current data protection policy places an emphasis on the rights of the individual. But it does not assess
the way in which our free will is increasingly restricted in ever more technologically complex
environments, and even less the effects of the digital metamorphosis on the process of subjectification, or
the individual’s self-becoming. In these texts, more often than not, we consider the subject as already
constituted, capable of exercising their rights, with their own free will and principles. And yet, the
characteristic of digital technology, as proposed here, is that it contributes to creating a new form of
The ethical challenges of digital identity
subjectivity: constantly redistributing the parameters of constraints and incitation, creating the conditions
for increased individual malleability. We outline this process in the work Les identités numériques en
tension (Digital Identities in Tension), written under the Values and Policies of Personal Information Chair
at IMT.
The resources established by the GDPR are clearly necessary in supporting individual initiative and
autonomy in managing our digital lives. Nonetheless, the very notions of the user’s consent and control
over their data on which the current movement is based are problematic. This is because there are two
ways of thinking, which are distinct, yet consistent with one another.
New visibility for individuals
Internet users seem to be becoming more aware of the traces they leave, willingly or not, during their
online activity (connection metadata, for example). This may serve as support for the consent-based
approach. However, this dynamic has its limits.
Firstly, the growing volume of information collected makes the notion of systematic user consent and
control unrealistic, if only due to the cognitive overload it would induce. Also, changes in the nature of
technical collection methods, as demonstrated by the advent of connected objects, has led to the
increase of sensors collecting data even without the user realizing. The example of video surveillance
combined with facial recognition is no longer a mere hypothesis, along with the knowledge operators
acquire from these data. This is a sort of layer of digital identity whose content and various possible uses
are entirely unknown to the person it is sourced from.
What is more, there is a strong tendency for actors, both from the government and the private sector, to
want to create a full, exhaustive description of the individual, to the point of reducing them to a long list of
attributes. Under this new power regime, what is visible is reduced to what can be recorded as data, the
provision of human beings as though they were simple objects.
The ambiguity of control
The second approach at play in our ultra-modern societies concerns the application of this paradigm
based on protection and consent within the mechanisms of a neo-liberal society. Contemporary society
combines two aspects of privacy: considering the individual as permanently visible, and as individually
responsible for what can be seen about them. This set of social standards is reinforced each time the user
gives (or opposes) consent to the use of their personal information. At each iteration, the user reinforces
their vision of themselves as the author and person responsible for the circulation of their data. They also
assume control over their data, even though this is no more than an illusion. They especially assume
responsibility for calculating the benefits that sharing data can bring. In this sense, the increasing and
strict application of the paradigm of consent may be correlated with the perception of the individual
becoming more than just the object of almost total visibility. They also become a rational economic agent,
capable of analysing their own actions in terms of costs and benefits.
This fundamental difficulty means that the future challenges for digital identities imply more than just
providing for more explicit control or more enlightened consent. Complementary approaches are needed,
The ethical challenges of digital identity
likely related to users’ practices (not simply their “uses”), on the condition that such practices bring about
resistance strategies for circumventing the need for absolute visibility and definition of the individual as a
rational economic agent.
Such digital practices should encourage us to look beyond our understanding of social exchange, whether
digital or otherwise, under the regime of calculating potential benefits or external factors. In this way, the
challenges of digital identities far outweigh the challenges of protecting individuals or those of “business
models”, instead affecting the very way in which society as a whole understands social exchange. With
this outlook, we must confront the inherent ambivalence and tension of digital technologies by looking at
the new forms of subjectification involved in these operations. A more responsible form of data
governance may arise from such an analytical exercise.
Provided by The Conversation
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Citation: The ethical challenges of digital identity (2019, November 7) retrieved 24 October 2020 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or
research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for
information purposes only.
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