Thought Leadership

Who am I?

By Colin Walls

The need for personal identification seems to crop up all the time. I heard an article on the radio this morning about the automatic passport reading machines at UK airports [which I have found can save me a lot of time] and their imperfections. This got me thinking about how we identify ourselves.

My name is not common, helped by my first name being unpopular in the US. However, if you enter it into Google, there are lots of hits. Quite a few of them are me – in fact, the first one is this blog [I just tried it]. However, there are at least 3 other guys, who are active on the Internet, going around using my name. Interestingly, if I add in my middle name [Edward, since you ask], which I almost never use, there are just three, uninteresting hits and they are me. My youngest daughter has an unusual first name, which she is always complaining about, as people misspell it or just get it wrong. However, if you search on her name, every hit is her [and I think she likes that really].

So, how can each of us be identified uniquely? …

I can think of a number of possible candidates for a unique personal identifier:

  • Name – This is obviously attractive, but, as I have already shown, it is difficult to achieve and even harder to verify uniqueness.
  • Date/time of birth – This has some possibilities. I might be 5704030530, assuming that I was born at 05:30 on 3 April 1957 [which is about right]. However, my research and calculations suggest that about 160 babies are born every minute, so at least a further 2-3 characters would be needed to guarantee uniqueness.
  • Social Security Number – In the US, everyone of working age has an SSN. As the system can accommodate up to a trillion individuals and the numbers are not reused, maybe the rest of the planet should sign up.
  • Biometrics – A number of physical characteristics are unique to each individual, such as fingerprints, retina patterns and DNA profiles. I am sure that one or more of these could be used to generate a unique, but still compact, identifier.

There must be lots of other possibilities.

I guess that an ideal ID is one that we can choose ourselves, the uniqueness of which is maintained by an international registration body. A current example is email addresses or domain names, which need to be unique, though they only stay attached to an individual as long as annual fees are paid. I, for example, own, which makes me feel that I am the “real” Colin Walls.

One challenge with names is spelling, which can be avoided with numeric codes, as they can have built in error checking. Because names have evolved over time, there are lots of spelling traps. Nowadays, everyone’s name has an official spelling, but, in the past, this was much more relaxed [another interest of mine is genealogy]. Sometimes variations are regional. For example, the name Leslie in the UK is a man’s name; the feminine form is Lesley. This does not seem to to be the case in the US. Americans also have trouble with my first name, which is often misspelled “Collin”. I guess that this is because my first name is unusual there, but the Irish last name “Collins” is quite common. I am not offended by the error, but it does lead to bounced emails.

Maybe we should simply lean harder on technology. I would cheerfully volunteer to have a chip implanted in my body that enabled suitable electronic equipment to identify me unambiguously. Why not? What have I got to hide? I think that anyone who objects to such things should be immediately arrested on suspicion of being a potential criminal . [No, I am not being totally serious on this point!] This technology would enable me to be contacted, draw cash, log on to a computer, pass through border controls and be eliminated from criminal investigations – all with no hassle to me. Bring it on.


0 thoughts about “Who am I?
  • A mixture of themes here – top of Google (Bing from where I come from ) is predictable and socially driven (if *you* read therefore *I* am). Birth names are time bound and will always fall in and out of favor with Royal Families etc in the driving seat.
    “Who am I” – many a pint and many a life has gone down over that one. Logically if we all had an ID it would of course be unique but that doesn’t answer the question. Why is an ID different to a First Name, Surname, Address etc ?

    To allow ME or I to be defined by technology is [IMHO] the wrong way to go. Many a well-schooled person has had one irrational moment which makes generic rule setting impossible (Doctors driving into the Edinburgh airport ticketing lounge for example).

    If I agree with one identity for withdrawing cash or log on to a computer, I just need cash and an Amazon account to be used by those around me when I don’t have the first anymore. I personally do not want to be defined by that – I’m responsible in all the ways you are trying to address. But I’d rather be Doug and queue for 30 minutes than be a number and nobody ever asked.
    You did say bring it on… 

  • Bing? Now, I’ve heard of that somewhere. I’ll Google it … 🙂

    Deep thoughts Doug. Not like you at all really – you must have been enjoying the holiday.

    I think I am OK with the use of biometrics, because at least such parameters are actually part of me.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at