How have people proven their identity since the dawn of time?

Last updated: 24 June 2021

The concept of human identity is something which has existed for thousands of years. Before we proved our identities with plastic cards or on our mobile devices, people proved their identity in several ways, such as language, physical identifiers or objects.

As part of our series on Digital Identity, this blog will look back on the personal identification techniques of previous eras to show how methods of identification have developed over the course of human history.

100,000 years ago – Jewellery

While drawing solid conclusions from evidence dating back hundreds-of-centuries is difficult, researchers and historians have been led to believe that cultures which existed nearly 100,000 years ago used items of jewellery as personal identifiers.

By studying artefacts found in modern day South Africa, Israel and Algeria, researchers believe that jewellery, such as beads, were used to communicate information such as wealth, familial origins and personal identity.

However, the method of using personal items as proofs of identity has not faded with history, with institutions such as the military using dog tags as individual identifiers for each soldier.

1046 BC – Tattoos

Another historical identification method was the use of tattoos. In numerous cultures, tattoos were considered valuable forms of identification because of their permanent nature. The use of tattoos as identification can be dated back as far as 1046 BC, where the Chinese authorities under the Zhou dynasty would use tattoos to mark prisoners.

However, arguably the most famous use of tattoos for identity purposes can be found amongst the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Lacking a written language, the Māori would use their facial tattoos (called Mokos) to identify themselves to other tribes. No two Mokos would be the same, each one detailing the individual heritage and history of the wearer’s family.

1415 – The first passport

The passport, one of the core identity documents of the modern world, was first created under the reign of King Henry V of England, following the Safe Conducts Act of 1414. Henry V created the passport for English citizens as a method of proving their identity in foreign countries.

Back then, passports were known as ‘safe conduct’ documents. However, they came to be known as passports around 1540, with the term ‘passport’ originating from a medieval document that was required to pass through the gate of a city wall or to pass through a territory.

1829 – Personal identification numbers

In 1829, the British Government enacted the Metropolitan Police Act, based on the reforms put forward by English statesman Sir Robert Peel. While this may seem initially unrelated to the history of identity, the Metropolitan Police Act saw police stations begin to store data in personal document files, each file being linked back to individuals using a unique numerical value. In short, this act was the inception of personal identification numbers, these later forming the basis of personal ID cards seen across the world today.

By 1936, the United States had begun rolling out their Social Security number cards, with other countries beginning to follow this example with the rise of electronic data processing.

1858 – First instance of biometric information being used for identification

It could be argued that the use of biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints, as identification has existed since pre-historic times. However, the first modern use of biometrics as an identifier was in 1858, when Sir William Herschel, an officer in the British Army stationed in India, recorded the fingerprints of workers on their employment contracts. He was later credited to be the first individual to use fingerprints as a practical means of identification.

1961 – The first computer password

Again, passwords are not a modern invention, with ancient societies such as the Romans using passwords in their military as means of identifying individuals entering restricted areas. However, passwords on computers, as we commonly use them today, were first developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the (CTSS), which was one of the first time-sharing operating systems.

While the use of passwords is a common reality for many of us, they are not without their flaws. This year, researchers have found that passwords are the primary means by which hostile actors hack into an organisation. In response to the ever-weaker protection offered by passwords, many organisations have turned to other methods, such as digital identity technology, to secure their data.

2004 – The development of advanced biometrics

A recurring theme in the later stages of our timeline, biometric technology took its quantum leap at the turn of the century. In 2004, for example, the U.S. states of Connecticut, Rhode Island and California established the first state-wide palm print databases. These databases were primarily used by law enforcement agencies to search unidentified palm prints against known offenders.

Six years later, the world’s largest biometric digital ID system, called the Aadhaar system, launched in India. The system was designed to speed up the verification process for government agencies while reducing fraud.

Today, biometric authentication is a constant feature in our lives, with many smartphones utilising facial or fingerprint recognition as a security measure.

With this rich history laying the foundations, we are now seeing the latest iteration of identification permeate societies across the world – Digital ID. With this comes the potential to unlock a wide spectrum of services which were previously which could have only been dreamt of in bygone times.

To find out more, read Thales’ recent eBook on digital identity. Follow us on Twitter @ThalesDigiSec to discover more about Thales DIS!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *