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The Digital Identity: What It Is, How It's Created, and How to Benefit from It

by Keith Metcalfe  |  July 30, 2019

The march is on to establish digital identities that fully mirror the real-life identities of individuals.

This achievement will unlock more secure, seamless, and reliable interactions online for individuals and organizations alike. While the myriad online activities, multiple social media accounts, and overall immersion of the modern person may make it seem as though identities have completely migrated into the digital ecosystem, the fact is that digital identities remain highly fragmented, context-dependent, and challenging to verify.

This deep dive into digital identity will describe the current digital identity landscape, examine the value that accurate and comprehensive digital identities promise, and outline four guiding principles for any organization interested in making the most of digital identity development.

What is digital identity?

No standard definition of digital identity currently exists. The World BankWorld Economic Forum, and NIST, among other organizations, each have distinct descriptions of the notion. However, most descriptions can be encompassed by the following:


Pinning down an authoritative definition is difficult because the attributes that make up an identity are a mix between what is observed and what is disclosed, objective facts and subjective values, and self-assessments and appraisals by others.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that some elements of an identity are given to people (e.g. name, passport number, recommendations) and some are created by the individual (e.g. the content of social media and dating profiles).

Furthermore, the elements of identity that are useful in the digital sphere are highly context-specific, meaning that digital identity’s definition for one organization or department may be completely different from that of another.


The majority of digital identity interpretations can be summed up in four categories. 

1. Digital identity as credential

This includes key information that people traditionally use to identify themselves. This information can be found on government issued documents like driver’s licenses, passports, birth certificates, or health cards.

In this category, digital identity simply means a digitized version of an individual’s:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality
  • Residence
  • Passport, health, or driver’s license numbers
  • Social media
  • Career and networking sites
  • Dating apps
  • Website visits
  • Email newsletters opened
  • Webinar registrations
  • Online purchases

2. Digital identity as character

This can be summed up as an individual’s self-portrayal online. This identity is controlled solely by the individual who shapes online profiles through their commentary, activities, and self-descriptions.

The information that comprises this identity category include:

  • Profiles for social media
  • Career and networking sites
  • Dating apps

3. Digital identity as user

This version is the collection of information related to an individual’s digital behavior. It is typically collected by counter-parties with which an individual interacts along with third parties to whom an individual has given permission. The picture of an identity is constructed through an accumulation of actions that reveal habits, interests, preferences, and priorities.

These actions include: 

  • Website visits
  • Email newsletters opened
  • Webinar registrations
  • Online purchases

4. Digital identity as reputation

This is derived from information that is publicly available and created by reputable third-parties. An identity is revealed through an individual’s history. These records often follow an individual and can impact things like employment opportunities, renting opportunities, and more.

Examples of digital identity as reputation can include:

  • Criminal records
  • Employment histories
  • Degrees and diplomas
  • Credit scores
  • Testimonials, reviews, and recommendations