Our personal identify is perhaps our most treasured possession. It defines who we are and reflects how we want others to see us. We expend much effort in developing this ‘sense of being’ and react defensively when we feel that it is under threat. For insurers, who we are and how we behave are at the heart of their underwriting process. This makes identification one of the key privacy issues that insurers need to attend to. It is however perhaps the most difficult one for insurers to get right.
Identification is the connecting of information to a particular person. It is something we all do throughout our lives, when we view others and others view us. It is also a constantly evolving activity, as we present different sides of our character to different audiences. So those aspects of our identify we present to the prospective employer will not be the same as those we present to our friends in the pub that evening.
Does this mean that we are forever manipulating our identifies? Some who challenge privacy rights take it to be just that: a way of hiding what we don’t want others to know about ourselves. They see this as a distortion of our identifies that can lead to distortions in market transactions, thus turning too great a concern for privacy into an impediment to efficient markets.
Like many privacy issues, there’s clearly a balance to be struck here. On the one hand, our identifies are hugely multifaceted. That prospective employer may want to know as much as possible about us, but would almost certainly fall asleep before we were half way it all. It’s only natural that we select different aspects of ourselves for different audiences and keep some things private for only select friends. We want to be open, and private, and put our best front forward, as and when we choose. A vital part of our socialisation involves developing this skill, in large part by learning to read what others want of us.
On the other hand, manipulating our identifies to present unreal variants of ourself to particular audiences (such as insurers) can turn into fraud and should be treated as such. Deciding when such manipulation becomes fraudulent is ultimately for the courts to decide.
Remember that companies have identities too, which can be just as multifaceted as those of individuals. Public relations, marketing and communications departments work hard to present the best side of that identity to different corporate audiences, sometimes with honest intent, but sometime not. Getting this right, and sustaining it over the long term, contributes hugely to what the company is worth.
Some aspects of our identity are so personal that we may in fact not want to disclose them to anyone. Indeed, we may even want to not find them out for ourselves. For example, the increasing ease of access to our genetic profile could raise such fundamental questions about who we are that some of us may prefer to remain ignorant about, and about its consequences. We can expect to be increasingly confronted with such choices as data becomes more prevalent, but in large measure, as a society we continue to allow such choices to be available. Whether businesses remain so tolerant is however less certain.
I’ll explore another dimension of identification in a couple of days time.