Saturday, October 3, 2009

On Determining True Identity

I listened to a fascinating show on CBC Radio last Friday that discussed the case of Suaad Hagi Mohamud's detention in Kenya. In this case a woman from Toronto, Canada, who when asked by Canadian embassy officials in Kenya to answer some seemingly basic questions to confirm her identity, failed. So much so, that on May 28, Canada informed Kenya that she was believed to be an imposter and voided her passport, recommending to Kenyan authorities that she be prosecuted. Later on August 10, Suaad's identity was confirmed by DNA after much pressure. After Kenya dropped charges she returns home amidst many questions being asked by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty of Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A sad and fascinating story.

The CBC radio show (The Current) on Friday talked about how Suaad might have failed questions that were so obvious to many of us. That her cultural background played a large part in her ability to answer questions such as the birth date of her children.
We started this segment with some voices of newcomers to Canada at an English class in Toronto. The questions we asked them were similar to the ones Canadian officials put to Suaad Hagi Mohamud when they were trying to determine if she was who she said she was. And the question we're left with now is whether it's fair to assume that there is a common set of cultural reference points that all -- or even most -- Canadians share.
In the standards community, many try to talk about identity in absolute terms. Who owns it, who controls it, with little acknowledgment of the gray areas. There is an underlying assumption that somehow with cryptography, good information protocols and secure practices, everything should be straight forward. This case shows how unrealistic confidence about what likely were flawed processes and cultural misunderstandings can go very wrong. The expertise of any asserting authority is critical (in this case Canada's passport office and embassies), and can have life changing impacts -- especially for Suaad Hagi Mohamud. The same is true for business. Enterprises need to consider carefully the sources of information and how critical it is to their customers, employees, and the business itself.

Give the show a listen.

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