The ghost in the identity

February 2013 Access Control & Identity Management

Often touted by the ID salesmen as the ultimate unerring manifestation of your identity on official documents, it surpasses only in some ways the drama of yore when ghosts would make friendly appearances at the theatre, and leave the audience awe-struck, by the living and the dead … and everything in between. My own creator (Mr Shakespeare, really) took much of the thunder away from all of us, by having The Ghost appear in The Play, but just four times.

It all starts with the fact that the picture on your identity document – a passport, ID Book or employee access card – can be altered by someone else wanting to be you, though not always for an unspeakable evil purpose, but maybe only to sneak into 'enemy' territory to hold hands with a beloved.

To make this difficult, nay impossible, a ghost image is inserted that stealthily appears (just like real ghosts) only under strange lights, or as shadows among the other images, or when you look at it all at a particular angle, or as today, among the fine lines, dots, colours and pixels. The characters from Baker Street could exclaim “excellent” and “elementary” when they have examined such documents with their magnifying glasses and ultra-violet lamps.

We did it in more dramatic ways. In the 1964 Broadway production, the great director-actor played The Ghost himself – just with his voice, and his shadow – both unmistakable, in such a manner that no one could impersonate him in a thousand years. But then we are all not John Gielguds. No wonder they said that in his prime, he was outstanding, but in his later years, a mere shadow of himself.

Beyond the obvious practical convenience of not being yourself (to get the better of spouse or tax collector), the deeper psychological ramifications of your wanting to be someone else, or of your not wanting to be yourself, are serious. It could even be that in some cases, of your wanting to be more than one self like the proverbial Jekyll and Hyde. Even worse, it could be the case of many of us wanting to be one particular likable self, like Elvis. Could our ghost images keep up with all that?

In this context, the ghost image indeed plays a role, much more important than we think. It keeps all seven billion of us on the planet, from being someone else. Just imagine the chaos, if this were not so.

Salesmen need to worry as well. It is a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, in Kafka’s famous novel, Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into a gigantic insect. Perhaps he was an ID salesman badly in need of an order.

Fortunately, everyone needs an ID today, and thus an immutable ghost image. Despots need them for their subjects and democracies for their citizens, albeit for slightly different reasons. So do corporations, banks, schools and universities, airlines, hotels and even shopping malls.

In every case, the ghost images must lie hidden, just like real ghosts, among the watermarks, beneath the holograms, interwoven with the guilloches and coloured with invisible inks, until some compelling reason makes them speak their lines – just like Hamlet, Banquo and Julius Caesar of my time. Even if we no longer look like our portraits, we must conform to our ghost images or else we are in trouble. That is the challenge.

Today, bartenders across America routinely ask for your ID, ostensibly to verify if you are of age, before serving you. But perhaps they are really checking on your ghost image. It was, again many years back in the 1930s prohibition years, that the public places first carried notices that said, 'Serving spirits is strictly prohibited'.

Polonius, when not appearing in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is a Hi-Tech Security Solutions’ writer who fantasises about a life on the stage.


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