CYBERCRIMES ASSOCIATED WITH DIGITAL IDENTITY
Author: Devika Singh
A person’s identity is indispensable throughout his journey as a human being. From getting a job to travelling the world, his identification is unknowingly functional in one way or other. ‘Identity is a fundamental right and the same has been acknowledged in Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that reads, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”.¹ The ability to exhibit one’s identity and prove you are, who you say you are with certainty and in a manner that is recognised and trusted by the government is a fundamental prerequisite to accessing the most basic services. Without proving one’s identity, they may be restricted to participate in the services and activities in society as basic as healthcare, enrolment in schools, vote, etc. Today more than a billion people are denied these fundamental human rights because of not having a recognised identity. However, efforts are made by harnessing Information Technology (IT) power to resolve such crises digitally.
WHAT IS DIGITAL IDENTITY?
In the 21st century, we are experiencing a massive revolution in terms of witnessing and exploring the digital era where the traditional methods of working in various areas have taken a step down. Transitioning from the traditional paper-based identification systems to the digital ones offers a new set of opportunities and challenges. Efforts are being made to channelize the power of the digital platform to create legal identities for the citizens so that they can avail better future opportunities. Even the UN and the World Bank aim to provide legal identity to everyone on this planet by 2030.
As an individual, a person identifies himself in many ways like his name, address, age, profession and more. A person identifies himself with the help of certain documents comprising information about him/ her like a birth certificate, driver’s license, social security number or Aadhar card number. Such instruments are referred to as identity instruments. The term ‘Digital Identity’ refers to any particular set of data or record of information that is expressed in digital form and represents you as you. A person’s digital identity comprises of one’s digital attributes and his digital activities. The digital attributes include a person’s login credentials like his username or password, government-issued ID’s, biometrics etc. whereas the digital activities comprise the activities an individual is engaged in on the digital platform. For instance, a person’s photos on social media, his purchase history, search history, cell phone usage all constitute his digital activities.
Thus, in practice, there's a degree of fuzziness to the definition of an entity’s identity, and most certainly to how others perceive it. No two identities are identical. Each identity maps to a singular set of characteristics. Two people may share several identical characteristics, like being the right age to drive or having an identical hair colour, but that doesn't mean that they need an identical identity.
IS IDENTITY A VALUABLE COMMODITY?
A person’s identity is a fusion of his physical and behavioural traits that uniquely recognisable a person. Identity is not only imperative for social, economic and digital inclusion but also in empowering individuals to employ their rights and responsibilities fairly and equitably in society. A person’s intellect, aptitude, skills including his abilities to deal with a situation all represents him as a separate individual. Every person has an equal and fundamental right to be a part of the society and economy like education, healthcare facilities or accessing banking facilities. However, the same is not possible without one having a distinct and discrete identity. Having an individual legal identity not only allows access to many privileges but also acts as a valuable commodity in various ways. For example in India, an Aadhar card allows you to avail all the government subsidiaries like an LPG subsidiary by linking your Aadhar card directly to your bank accounts. The digital platform generates an opportunity for those sections of the people who are not vocal about their choices. Their digital identity can be used as a marketing tactic by the businessmen to achieve their target by knowing and connecting better to the demands and wants of the consumers.
The digital platform allows them to keep a track of the consumer’s preferences and choices not by merely guessing but by constant observation of their digital behaviour. This two ways street not only benefits the consumers but also allows the companies to reap the benefits of their efforts with minimal investment and improvised technologies.
A considerable part of our daily life involves interaction with the digital platform, be it online shopping, education, communicating, banking, checking news etc. to name a few where electronic devices such as computers and mobiles represent us in the digital world. However, to represent us without a lack of physical documents can be an issue, which is why various platforms use combinations of factors like passwords, biometrics etc. to validate the authenticity of a person’s identity. Like there are two sides of a coin, everything that offers certain benefits also accompanies risks associated with it. Even though our digital identities create huge opportunities and benefits to the individual it can’t be examined that there are certain risks that can’t be escaped. The technology and legal approaches we use to shield ourselves can sometimes backfire and act against our benefit.
In the digital platform, cyber law governs and supervises the statutory provisions that regulate cyberspace and legal issues related to it. Our digital identity has become a frequent target of abuse by fraudsters which may be primarily for the purpose of stealing some private information or for availing some service to which is the victim is entitled. Although the Cyber Laws are governed by the IT Act and the Rules made thereunder, one may take the assistance of the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 when the IT Act doesn’t cover any specific type of offence. In the popular Sony Sambandh case², the Hon’ble court held the accused liable for misusing the card details of the victim and making an online payment in her name. It also observed that the Indian Penal Code, 1860 can be effective legislation to rely on when the IT Act is not exhaustive.
In the present day scenario, the pandemic has turned physical stalking into virtual stalking and it is now easier to stalk or keep an eye on people and their activities through various social media tools. Online stalking is one of the most common crimes amongst youngsters, who spend a large portion of their time on social media and dating sites. Many cases have been registered in the past few years wherein the victim’s digital identity has become a cause of their loss. Harassing a woman via e-mail by sending defamatory, obscene and annoying information about her to get her to marry someone is also punishable under section 67 of the IT Act³.
Courtesy: ANI (Twitter @ANI) June 19
Cybercrimes have become an instrument by the fraudsters to meet the illegal ends of their acts. They not only include breach of personal privacy, illegally obtained data for blackmailing, but also cover transaction-based crimes like money laundering, digital piracy, fraud etc. In another case of Avnish Bajaj v. State (NCT) of Delhi⁴, the victim’s digital identity proved to be a huge disadvantage to him when the fraudster by illegal means gained access to his business account and indulged in cyber pornography tarnishing the victim’s image.
In cyberspace, the victim’s stolen identity may also be used to create a new account and gain credit in their name, defraud an online service, commit first-party fraud, phishing or make mule accounts for money laundering. Although there is no specific legislation in India to penalise phishing, the Hon’ble court in the landmark judgment of National Association of Software and Service Companies vs. Ajay Sood & Others⁵ declared phishing to be an illegal act, by defining it as "a misrepresentation made in the course of trade, leading to confusion in order to take undue advantage of the consumer’s services to which he is otherwise not eligible”. With the advancement of the digital era, Cyber Crimes are evolving constantly and the government needs to formulate better regulations to cope up with the same.
WAYS TO AUTHENTICATE/ VERIFY A PERSON’S DIGITAL IDENTITY
As we discussed earlier, there are certain threats accompanied by the opportunities that the digital platform brings before us. With the advent of digitalisation and everything moving from traditional paperwork to online, the amount of consumer data stored in cyberspace is also increasing. Even though this increases the chances of the data being misused and mismanaged the use of various credentials can help manage the same risk. A considerable amount of National E- ID schemes have been initiated to provide safe and secure identity to people all across the world. With the innovations in the IT industry, more credible sources of identification such as biometric data collection, social security numbers have been developed. New technologies and systems have been made to support this transformation worldwide like Digital driver’s license (mobile driver’s license) in UK, USA, Australia and Netherlands; European Union's Electronic Identification and Signature (eIDAS) regulation in Europe; Biometric system (fingerprints, retina scan) in India etc. . India is one of the pioneers and the world’s largest biometric system (Aadhar) user in the world. These policies aim to improve the user experience, provide a safe and secure platform to the consumers, and better opportunities.
HOW IS BLOCKCHAIN EFFICIENT IN GUARDING A PERSON’S DIGITAL IDENTITY?
Although the verification mechanisms set up by the countries aim to provide safer and secure transactions, they only act as a mitigating factor. However, a better technology of ‘Blockchain’ has been found to be more effective than any other process in keeping a safe track of transactions and private information. Blockchain is a database or a suite of distributed ledger technologies that can be programmed to record or track anything of value from medical records to financial transactions. Blockchain technology stands to revolutionise the way we interact with each other because of three major reasons:
(i) the way it tracks and stores the data,
(ii) creates trust in the data and
(iii) eliminates the role of intermediaries.
Blockchain stores the information in batches called ‘blocks’ that are linked together in a chronological manner to form a chain of blocks. If there is a change in the information stored in a particular block, the information is not edited in the same block, but a new block containing the fresh piece of information is created. Unlike the old age ledger system, Blockchain was created to decentralise and distribute the information over a large network of computers as the decentralisation reduces the chances of tampering with the data which helps in keeping the data secure. When a change is suggested, the information of the same is sent to all the computers in the network. The combination of these complex steps and verification by many computers ensures that we can trust each and every block of the chain. No intermediaries are required to verify the data, and thus this one on one interaction with our data improves the user experience.
Blockchain has simplified the so-called self-sovereign identity, i.e. it reveals a minimalistic amount of data required for the task, the records are individually encrypted, the identity either remains public/ private/ hybrid as per the user’s choice, any recorded information is irreversible and all the network participants have a copy of the data to ensure trust. However, apart from the policies formulated by the government, the citizens at their individual level can take certain precautions to prevent any crimes in cyberspace. These include using strong and different passwords for different sites, never give out your personal information to any random site, keeping the software and operating systems updated to receive improved security, never open an attachment in your mail from an anonymous person (it may contain virus/ malware attacks), keep an eye on your bank transactions and if suspicious activity is noticed seek professional help.
To sum up, we have well established how valuable a person’s identity is. With the developments in the digital platform, although the digital identity brings huge opportunities to the people, the risks associated with the same are considerably increasing. The digital world has become a breeding place for cybercrimes where digital identities have been put to the threat. Organisations should work more efficiently and effectively to protect the privacy of their customers. However, taking necessary precautions on behalf of the consumers, better legal approaches and technological concepts like Blockchain should also be improved and undertaken to receive a positive outcome.
2 CBI vs. Arif Azim
3 State of Tamil Nadu vs. Suhas Katti
4 (2008) 150 DLT 769
5 119 (2005) DLT 596
7. Thales Group - Digital Identity Groups Shaping 2021 (URL)
8. Tech Funnel - What is Digital Identity and How does it work? (URL)
9. Enhelion Blogs - Landmark Cyber cases in India (URL)
10. Investopedia - Blockchain Explained (URL)
11. Euromoney - What is blockchain? (URL)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Devika Singh is pursuing BBA LLB from Gitarattan International Business School, New Delhi (GGSIPU affiliated). She has a great interest in the field of Constitutional law and Criminal law.