Why do I need a passport to travel? Why do I have to have so many passwords online? Why should I be fingerprinted to enter the USA? Should there be national DNA databases? Is my identity safe? Questions like these have multiplied in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. New ways of identifying people on the move, buying goods and services, and preventing crimes have been developed in the UK as well as globally. Do these protect our rights, threaten our privacy, or make us safe?
Public debate on these complex global issues remains surprisingly ignorant of the history and ideas underpinning individual identification, registration and pigeon-holing. We think of these techniques as modern – but the fact is that recognisable ID systems are almost as old as civilisation itself. In 2008, Professsor Jane Caplan (University of Oxford) and Dr Edward Higgs (University of Essex), supported by an International Networks grant from the Leverhulme Trust to the University of Oxford’s Faculty of History, established ‘Documenting Individual Identity: Historical and Comparative Perspectives since 1500′. Known as IdentiNet, we are a network of academics from four continents, working to tell the story of individual identification within a long-term, international and comparative framework.