It’s Identity, Stupid

by Richard Thieme


Published n Cyber Defense Magazine at RSA March 2013


We know that identity is a critical issue for security practitioners, but have we really grasped that identity has become THE existential issue for life in the early 21st century?


Academics write scholarly tomes on morphing personas and juggling online personalities; counter-cultural spokesfolk like Jacob Applebaum in his 29C3 keynote articulate a perceived need for learning how to erase tracks that linger in the snows of cyberspace; traffic analysis and those from whom and to whom the traffic moves requires more and more storage, faster and faster processing.

But it’s deeper than that.

The fact is, we live among a multiplicity of nested identities that are linked and simultaneously morphing, identities that we determine at the comment of both contemplation and action because the decisions we make about being and thinking and doing determine the clusters of thoughts and actions that in turn determine HOW WE ARE PERCEIVED by Others –  and the other may be Big Brother, or one of many little brothers gathering, parsing and selling our data, or casual friends who interpret who they think we are unselfconsciously as they engage with our symbolic presence – also on the fly – and assume and presume us to be who they think we are (see: phishing).

Identity – from that of “the individual,” a social construction, post-renaissance, post printing press – to the citizenship we reference as our primary source of being-in-the-world – is on the move. And because those levels are nested and linked, a change in one means a change in the others, the way pulling a side of a rhomboid on a computer monitor alters the area and the shape, yes, but above all, the relationships of the parts to each other and to the perceived whole. And it is relationships that determine the whole, even more than what is related. Relationships frame what we think we see, more than the things we thinn we see, and those who know this and achieve mastery and control over most behaviors in that regard, rule the identity space – which is now the space of offensive and defensive activities alike.

But it’s worse than that.

Implicit ethical and moral dimensions emerge from new social and cultural structures as a result of ongoing technological transformations, so any discussion of ethics – that is, the right or appropriate behavior in any given context – in relationship to the implementation of new technologies, must take into account these multiple dimensions. The philosophical and religious systems that permeate society are also undergoing transformation, which means that prior paradigms have become chaotic seas of uncorrelated data in transitional cognitive spaces. The frames in which emergent properties, new patterns of data, and new emergent selves – beyond “individuality” – all live and move and have their being, are not yet clear, nor do they have names we can use as if we all mean the same things by our words.  We still call these vehicles for self-expression “horseless carriages,” as it were, using terms that are fading from sight, and have not yet found a way to talk about “driving” and “automobiles.”

All this is most evident in the world of security and professional intelligence.

Post WorldWar II, R&D in the intelligence community and military spheres have shared responsibility for creating technological engines that have transformed human identity and therefore the Kuhnian paradigm in which we frame possibilities for action. Action means options, and options mean ethics. (As I said, I define ”ethics” as options that are most congruent with our core notions of identity, self, integrity, and “the right thing to do.”)

Definitions of everyday reality—privacy, security — continue to be transformed by technologies of surveillance, information, and communication. Those technologies are invisible frames because we live inside the picture, so if we define ethical issues in the context created by prior technologies then we derive familiar recognizable and comforting concepts as a result, but ones that no longer fit the real-life context created by new technologies. Our ethical decisions are inauthentic. We deceive others, yes,  but first we deceive ourselves. That is the heart of the problem.

Between times, we live in the fog of war. In a world which posits terrorists (i.e., enemies of social and economic order) as the Other, the mind of society is the battlefield. Images and ideas are the primary weapons, and the means by which they come into being and move through human networks is the subtext of all security. The paradigms we use determine the questions we are capable of thinking and asking. The formulation of relevant questions may be more important than the answers.

Let me highlight a few key concepts:


(1) Information security as one task, both offensive and defensive, of the intelligence community sanctions breaking foreign laws while prohibiting similar activities on American soil. We have no friends or allies “out there,” only targets (and maybe “in here,” too). But simple distinctions of “foreign” and “domestic” no longer hold. The convergence of enabling technologies of intrusion, interception, and panoptic reach, combined with a sense of urgency about the counterterror imperative and a clear mandate from our leaders to do everything possible to defeat an amorphous non-state entity defined by behaviors rather than boundaries, borders, or even a clear ideological allegiance, has created an ominous but invisible set of conditions that undermine the previous cornerstones of law, ethics, and even religious traditions.

(2) Identity is a function of boundaries. An “individual self” defined by a boundary around biological processes and the complex of energy and information radiated by those processes is undermined by the erosion of those boundaries by the use of connective technologies.

(3) Security, privacy, and intelligence gathering are corollaries of individual and national identities and how they relate to one another.

(4) Security is a function of boundaries. Boundaries define the “other” that threatens “us” and “us” is a felt experience of clan, tribal, and societal kinship still. Prior to the emergence of writing and the religions it facilitated, the “enemy” was the “Other.” Ancient societies defined enemies as non-members of  our tribe. After writing, the enemy became – e.g. in Christianity– that in ourselveswhich must be fought, resisted, or transcended. This shift in consciousness was a result of emergent technologies of writing.

When the enemy is “within” the body politic, defined as an element that threatens societal order and economic well-being, defined no longer as a nation-state that threatens our political existence as a nation state, then the distinction between criminals and terrorists or religious/political dissenters and supporters of terrorism blurs. Accordingly the tools considered appropriate to their identification and neutralization will blur.

We continue to speak of ethical norms in relationship to the cultural past as if it is still the context of our beliefs and actions. We speak of individuals as primary moral agents. We speak of nation states as primary determinants of our collective identities. We speak of the intelligence mission as if “we” who live inside one nation are intercepting or penetrating or subverting the technical processes and social dynamics of others who are also “inside” the boundary of a nation state that defines them.

Those distinctions no longer hold.

(6) Current technologies make speaking of interception obsolete. Boundaries between elements of the network, between the networks that make up the network, are arbitrary and porous. We live in a world without walls. Every attribute of a process or structure that broadcasts or transmits information about itself by any means can be detected, often at the source. Often enough, those who built the system in the first place engineer information to come to them. “Here” and “there” are distinctions without a difference.

(7) Identity at a fundamental level is therefore transformed. Digital identities can be appropriated, yes, but more than that, we invent them on the fly and determine at the moment of thought or action or execution to which matrix of equally transitory and transitional attributes we are related as a node in the network. Our identities exist as potentialities made actual by our intention at the moment of action. They are the equivalent of quantum states, fixed only when expressed.

 Identity in relationship to security is a matter of observationand not assertion. Only multi-level observation penetrates the skin sufficiently to reach the meta-level determined by actions which may support or contradict identity-assertions.

(9)  As boundaries go liquid, the task of defining appropriate behaviors in relationship to moral norms becomes difficult because the phrase “moral norms” is a metaphor for the context that is generally invisible to members of a society but not to sophisticated security professionals, an elite sanctioned to manipulate those underlying norms on behalf of ends considered important enough to justify a variety of means to achieve them.


 Security and intelligence professionals exercise an implicit, de facto thought leadership because they create structures that bind and inform society and civilization. They create frames of human behavior that determine how we think about ourselves as possibilities for action. Their real implicit charge is no longer “to defend and protect a nation” but tostabilize a world.

The dire possibility of societal disintegration elevates the moral responsibility of the security and intelligence communities to a higher level. Linked in cooperative activity, they are responsible for maintaining social and global order at a level of understanding far beyond that formulated in the past by any one nation. These communities in the aggregate constitute a global community of practitioners who share an ethos and modalities of operation not available to ordinary citizens; they have thereby created for themselves an intrinsic vocation or calling to maintain global order in a way that is consistent with the ethical norms and moral order articulated by the great cultural traditions even as those traditions are also transformed by diverse technologies—and even though they and we recognize that in practice that moral order and those ethical norms are often violated as a matter of practice.

Well, this is but the beginning of a conversation. No one said it would be easy, did they?


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