The Future of Digital Identity Verification: In the era of AI Deep Fakes

Identity is the cornerstone of our sense of self, defining who we are within our communities and societies. It encompasses various attributes, such as language, cultural background, religion, education, and profession. While these characteristics shape our personal identities, an expanded definition of identity is necessary for states and institutions to effectively deliver services across domains like education, healthcare, banking, employment, and travel. Consequently, regulatory bodies around the world mandate "Know Your Customer" (KYC) checks, which are aimed at verifying one's identity before granting access to services or facilities, such as opening bank accounts, obtaining loans, or acquiring mobile SIM cards.

In response to these needs, governments have issued numerous identity documents, including birth certificates, passports, ration cards, and NREGA cards, all of which play a crucial role in establishing an individual's identity within the framework of society. However, as technology continues to evolve, the realm of digital identity verification has become an increasingly pertinent topic.

The Aadhaar Project: National ID for service delivery and inclusion

One noteworthy example of digital identity verification's potential lies in the Aadhaar project, which has achieved tremendous success in India. The Aadhaar system has enrolled an astounding 1.3 billion Indian residents, providing each individual with a unique identification number. This initiative has revolutionized the verification process by offering an online method for confirming one's identity. Moreover, Aadhaar's KYC framework has substantially reduced the cost of identity verification, from Rs 500 to a mere Rs 3 per transaction. This monumental cost reduction has enabled government and private sector entities to conduct transactions with unparalleled efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and reliability. Notably, Aadhaar has facilitated the "Direct Benefit Transfer" (DBT) of over $300 billion annually, ensuring efficient delivery of subsidies, especially to the rural poor.

Identity in the Age of the Internet

The advent of the internet introduced novel challenges and opportunities for identity verification. As the internet grew, the famous New York Times cartoon depicted a dog sitting at a computer, telling another dog, "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This clever illustration encapsulates the dilemma of online identity. In the early stages of the internet (Web 1.0), identity verification was limited, and individuals could assume various online personas with relative ease.

With the emergence of Web 2.0, a paradigm shift occurred. The concept of an Issuer, User, and Verifier became pivotal in digital identity frameworks. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple seized the opportunity by offering federated identity services through OAuth, allowing users to log in to multiple websites using their trusted credentials. This model, known as "Federated Identity," offered convenience and efficiency but raised concerns about data privacy and security. While these centralized systems initially provided a reliable means of verification, they also concentrated immense power in the hands of a few large corporations.

Decentralized Identity in the era of Web 3.0

The above challenge led to the  rise of Web 3.0 wit its blockchain technology, ushered in the promise of decentralized identity systems. In this paradigm, users are empowered to issue and manage their own credentials on blockchains without relying on “trusted” intermediaries like Google, Facebook or Apple. Technologies such as Verifiable Credentials (VC) and Digital ID standards (DID) enable the construction of decentralized identity systems. These frameworks offer enhanced privacy since data is not centralized whereas stored in a decentralized blockchain ledger, but yet fulfilling the requirements of a robust identity ecosystem.

Digital ID in the age of Generative AI (Web 4.0?)

However, the rapid development of AI, particularly Generative AI with its large language models (LLMs), presents a clear and present danger to digital identity verification. Deep fakes—synthetic media that convincingly imitate real human speech, behavior, and appearance—pose a significant threat to the trust mechanisms carefully constructed within identity systems over time. In this likely future scenario, where AI-generated impersonations create chaos and erode trust, the need for a "proof-of-personhood" verification capability likely using a person’s biometrics becomes paramount. A robust digital identity system must be able to differentiate between a human being and a robotic entity at the other end of an online connection. 

This is where India's Aadhaar project shines, as its biometric based verification can distinguish between human residents of India and AI-generated robots that could potentially wreak havoc on trust and identity. By establishing the humanness or personhood of individuals, such a system ensures the smooth conduct of government, financial and social transactions, where trust serves as the foundation for meaningful interactions in an increasingly AI-driven world.

As published in the Express Computers (The Indian Express venture)