Ethics of identity management

Information technology (IT) has become part of our daily lives and is no longer a merely enabling technology. It is constitutive, i.e. it partly (re-)constitutes the things to which it is applied. Therefore it shapes our practices, discourses and institutions in important ways. One of the most prominent and sensitive areas in it is the processing of personal data and the protection of personal privacy. By using special profiling techniques, multiple databases of one data subject are coupled, which means that profiles and stereotypes can be created (as shown in the diagram). This immediately raises ethical questions, such as privacy issues and (the consequences of) erroneous classifications, that need to be addressed.

In my research, I want to identify the ethical issues associated with identity management and profiling technologies and study them in order to develop the normative requirements for the design of these technologies. This requires several steps: First, I will introduce identity management (hereafter IM) and profiling by exploring their historical and cultural context in order to show the importance of identification and IM for everyday administration. Second, I will provide the current technological state of the art of IM and profiling technologies. Third, I will do a problem analysis: What are points of attention from an ethical point of view? This implies that several crucial concepts such as personal data, profiles and identity, amongst others, need to be clarified. The central work of this thesis will be done in the fourth step. This concerns the examination of philosophical theories of personal identity in order to arrive at a normative conception of personal identity that should be taken as starting point when studying the ethical aspects of IM and profiling technologies. In other words, this step will provide for the conceptual framework that is required for achieving the goals of my research. An important leading notion in this matter is the notion of ‘moral identification’, the idea that a person should be respected as a moral person and as such have the positive liberty to morally identify with his or her identity and identity related data. The theoretical part of my research will result in a conception of personal identity that provides a justification for the normative requirements and moral constraints with respect to the ethical aspects of IM and profiling technologies. I will conclude my research with a formulation of moral criteria for the design of these technologies.

This research aims specifically at formulating normative requirements and moral constraints with respect to the design of IM and profiling as information technologies. It is embedded in the larger research program ‘Value Sensitive Design’. This program builds on a conception of doing ethics of information technology (Value Sensitive Design) that “aims at making moral values part of technological design, research and development. It assumes that human values, norms, moral considerations can be imparted to the things we make and use and it construes information technology (and other technologies for that matter) as a formidable force which can be used to make the world a better place, especially when we take the trouble of reflecting on its ethical aspects in advance.”

With respect to the actual design processes of IM and profiling, this project will concentrate on the ‘context of justification’ of values, norms, and moral constraints by examining the ethical conception of identity in relation to IT. The development and use of IM and profiling technologies (perhaps any technology) are situated within a particular (social/cultural/psychological) context in which assumptions develop (or are constructed) that justify the particular design and use; thus, a context of justification. In my research, I want to articulate a conceptualization of personal identity that I claim should be the starting point for making these assumptions, in order to make these, in fact, ethically valid. It is not my goal to give a fully accurate and detailed description of technical requirements for those working on a design project. However, I will provide for the necessary preliminary conceptual work for justifying these prescriptions.

More Information

Interview with Noëmi Manders- about her research
“Ethische profielen” (TU Delta November ’08)