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Building on the universe established in this question, what happens to identity verification when someone's physical appearance and genetic code are modifiable at any time?

Review of universe rules:

  • All genetic disorders have been eliminated. Children are tested at birth for disorders and those disorders are eliminated. Eugenics doesn't play a role here as every outward attribute is maleable.
  • Genetic manipulation is cheap, ubiquitous, and perfect (no side-effects or unintentional changes).
  • Genomes are cheap to sequence ($10/genome).
  • Gene treatments are capable of manipulating every single characteristics of a person's body, including but not limited to, hair color, eye color, skin color, facial structure, body fat distribution, height, musculature, sex.
  • Near-future (max 2025) technology levels. (Admittedly, genetic manipulation of this kind is probably not going to be available in the next 10 years, but just go with it.)
  • Genetic manipulations are highly regulated with perfect enforcement of regulations by a global regulatory body. This doesn't preclude people from making illegal genetic changes, just the assurance that they will be caught and the changes reverted.
  • Manipulation of the brain or brain chemistry is strictly prohibited. (Sorry, schizophrenics, your time will come.)

Additional rules:

  • While the treatments are very monetarily cheap for all possible manipulations, the changes themselves can be painful and lengthy. For example, adding two inches to your height would require time off your feet and some painkillers as your bones, tendons and muscles reform themselves to the new genetic blueprint.
  • Genetic privacy is tightly regulated with long court histories protecting a person's genome; think European privacy laws only with stronger penalties and tighter enforcement.

To establish a user's identity, three different components may be used, something the user has (such as a credit card), something the user knows (PIN to a credit card) or something permanently attached to the user (fingerprints or facial recognition). Strong authentication or two factor authentication relies on having two of the three identification components.

With this new gene manipulation technology, biometric authentication no longer works the way it did. Looking at someone's picture on a drivers license or taking fingerprints no longer unequivocally establishes someone's identity.

What kind of technological and/or regulatory solution(s) might be used to ensure that a person's identity can be verified with 99.99999% accuracy? (At this degree of accuracy, a misidentification will occur once in every million identification attempts) Broader changes to society as a result of amorphous physical identities are outside the scope of this question.

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    $\begingroup$ This world sounds pretty terrifying to me. "Children are tested at birth for disorders and those disorders are eliminated." Who gets to decide what's a disorder? But this is still a good question. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 24 '15 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh I agree, but that's a different question. Yeah, I think a very reasonable fear in such a society would be that the government would decree that all mental illnesses must be cured, and then declare that disagreeing with government policy is a mental illness. After all, if the government experts all agree that this policy is a good idea, then only a crazy person would say otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 24 '15 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ umm...genes don't work this way. You can't change your appearance by changing your genes, not as a full grown adult. Genes are blue prints for how your body should build itself sure, but the body is already built, changing blueprints now doesn't change how it was built. In addition re sequencing every gene in the body is absurdly difficult and improbable. Changing genes of an embryo before birth is simple because there is only one (or a few) cells to change. A full grown adult has too many cells for you to hunt down and change each one individually. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 24 '15 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ Seems to me that "perfect enforcement" implies that you already have a way to establish identity. If not, how would you have any enforcement in the first place? If you can't establish who a person is or who that person is meant to be, how do you know whether they change they made was illegal or not? $\endgroup$ – Ajedi32 Jul 24 '15 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Fingerprints aren't coded for genetically (identical twins have different ones), so shouldn't they be immune to genetic manipulation? $\endgroup$ – evankh Jul 25 '15 at 3:47

11 Answers 11

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You already answered your own question.

Genetic manipulations are highly regulated with perfect enforcement of regulations by a global regulatory body. This doesn't preclude people from making illegal genetic changes, just the assurance that they will be caught and the changes reverted.

This perfect regulation could be used to create a transaction log, or tlog.The numerical representation of one's generic code could be hashed before and after each modification, then appended to one's ID as part of the "perfect enforcement." The more modifications, the longer your hash is.

Given the absolute mastery of genetic modification, the "ID" could be something innate, such as the insertion of inert "junk DNA." The same hash could be included on a person's smart ID card. Casual identification could be as simple as bumping cards (like with some smart phones, perhaps as part of a handshake or hug) for temporary transfer is your hash, then touching/breathing onto/licking the card to allow for comparison.

I may flesh this out over the weekend, but it seems good enough to get the idea across.

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    $\begingroup$ I recommend watching GATACA to see where this sort of plot line can go. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 26 '15 at 5:23
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Digital Signatures

After modification, your genetic code will be "signed" by the regulatory body, using secured private keys. Then that signature will be appended to your "junk" DNA areas as well as stored in a master user database. It can then be verified by anyone using the available public keys.

This will allow unique verification of the individual regardless of any modifications, and isn't avoidable without illegal gene mods.

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  • $\begingroup$ Brilliant! So good! $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 24 '15 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Green: I've had vague ideas for a story for a while now where people had implemented a public/private key sign on a genetic level - as part of their DNA replication process - as a defense against hostile genetic modifications and mutations. So this was just a logical extension of that. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Jul 24 '15 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ Add in a little SHA256 hashing for fingerprints of the genome and think it would work quite nicely. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 24 '15 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ Is our genetic code perfectly stable? If my memory is good, there are some small changes occuring over time (e.g. radiation). This can make the signature check fail or even corrupt that signature... $\endgroup$ – Vladislavs Dovgalecs Jul 24 '15 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ There probably are changes that happen over a life time. Mapping everyone's genome as often as desired would quickly discover any such mutations/drift. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 24 '15 at 19:52
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You are looking for something that no society has yet found a need to develop: a method of identification which yields the right answer anywhere near that success rate.

It does bring up the question of how you wish to measure the effectiveness of this identification. Once you get that deep into trying to "perfect" something statistical, we have to talk about false-positive and false-negative rates separately. For example, we can always have a statistical test whose false-positive rate is 0.000001 (A person who is not you can impersonate you only 1 in a million times) simply by raising the false-negative rate (You may fail to identify as yourself, say, 30% of the time). When going for statistical perfection, always remember that there are no perfect statistics.

As for the trifecta of security (something you have, something you know, and something you are) I think you ave correctly identified that the "something you are" is the only tricky one. However, it is worth noting that the vast majority of biometric identifications are not believed to be stored in genetic code, but rather develop quasi-randomly during our time as an embryo. For instance, fingerprints types are inherited, but the details used for fingerprint matching are not. They develop between weeks 10 and 15 of a fetus' development. (source)

However, if you want a really solid identification, start with a friend. A good impersonator should not be able to dupe a close friend over long periods of time. It's technically possible, but such connections go deep enough that it is highly likely a friend would be able to detect that something is up.

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    $\begingroup$ Ditto, especially the statement about no society achieving anything like the required level of accuracy. Recognizing someone's face is pretty good, but there have been plenty of cases of people making false identifications that way. I don't know if anyone's done a study on the accuracy, but I'm sure the error rate is over 1 in a million. There have been some studies indicating that the FBI's DNA matching is nowhere near as accurate as the theoretical claims: thousands of duplicate DNA signatures have been found on their database. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I think the ... $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 24 '15 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ ... probability of duplication by chance came out to move than 1 in a million, still pretty low, but not the 1 in many billions or even trillions that you often hear quoted. Etc. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 24 '15 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Jay: Of course you need to realize that the FBI and similar police agencies are perfectly capable of a) falsifying evidence when it suits their purposes; and b) grossly overstating the accuracy of their methods in order to obtain convictions. I refer you to the daily news for instances. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 25 '15 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Sure. Many things going on here, and this gets into a different question. But (a) people are often confused about what "science" is. The fact that a theory is very technical and complex and that someone did a lot of work and calculations to come up with it is not at all the same as saying that it has been proven true by scientific experiment. The fact that biologists calculated such-and-such a probability for two people having the same DNA signature by chance is interesting, but doesn't prove it true. And in fact that actual experiments appear to prove it false. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 26 '15 at 5:16
  • $\begingroup$ (b) People have a tendency to like certainty. If you say, "We performed this test and it indicates a 48% probability that the defendant is guilty", what does that mean? What do you do about it? But you say, "14 chances in a billion that he isn't guilty" and people are satisfied. My point is, a claim of high certainty is welcomed. A claim that it's just really hard to say is unsatisfying and people look for something else. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 26 '15 at 5:18
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Perhaps mitochondrial DNA could be used in lieu of nuclear DNA. I would imagine this would lead to a lot of paranoia about falling hair/skin etc.

Alternatively a part of the genome that does not code for a protein could be used, i.e. an existing superfluous region or one that was added in. The location of this piece in the genome would likely be the identifying factor that only the individual/regulatory body would know.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi dino, welcome to the site. Great answer +1. Can you elaborate about what would cause falling hair/skin? For the non-scientists. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Jul 24 '15 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ You're always dropping hair and skin in tiny amounts: shedding eyelashes, dead skin from fingers etc. Its conceivable that in the near future and in the conditions described DNA recovery technology from such low-quality sources would be advanced. $\endgroup$ – dino Jul 24 '15 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ You have the same mitochondrial DNA as your mother. So, it's not a unique identifier. Good storage location though, since people won't be modifying it in the normal course of enhancement/alterations. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 24 '15 at 17:00
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What does appearance have to do with identity? Do you not recognize your acquaintances if they put on different clothing, change hair styles or colors, grow or shave facial hair, even gain or lose large amounts of weight? (Or in the case of women, get breast implants?) Changing other factors would be no different.

Banking accounts &c would be dealt with just as they are online now. As others have pointed out, most banks, mutual funds, credit card companies, and so on have never had any physical contact with their customers.

For the governments who want to control their populations, too effing bad. Technology has just made this impossible. Consider that in most places it's only been within the last century or so that there was any concept of government ID.

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    $\begingroup$ Side note: It amazes me how impressive the human mind is at recognizing people. We often recognize a friend even though his hair has turned gray, he's grown a beard, gained 40 pounds, and acquired a scar across his forehead. Heck, you can still at least faintly recognize Caitlyn Jenner even though he's grown his hair and had breast implants. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 24 '15 at 19:20
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Simple ... change yourself beyond recognition = loose your identity. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Once you eat it, it's gone. Same with changing your identity. To the demand "But I want too ... please?" the answer is a simple "no". Trying to fool people by changing your genetic code has it's consequences.

Another consideration is that the gene's that make up say your height comprise such a minuscule amount of your DNA that your DNA will still be indistinguishable from any other being in the universe past, present, or future. For this reason genomic identity can never be fooled or changed.

Besides, it will never be a easy as you make it sound. Consider this ... one would think that we could clone blood cells instead of doing blood drives yes? Believe me when I say 10's millions have gone into that research ... consider the windfall of revenues for the manufacturer let alone considering the lives saved. The problem is that all efforts to clone mere blood cells (white or red) have been miserable in the quality control department ... and that's normal cells, not custom designed ones. The result is cancerous blood cells, and all it takes is a tiny percent of a percent to wipe out the whole container. That should be child's play compared to what you are talking about and yet despite all the funds going into it they say best case it will start being viable 20 years from now ... to make a blood cell to put in a person. Which, if historical medical advances is any indication, it will likely be 50 years down the road and still fraught with innumerable disadvantages.

Sorry to be a killjoy, but hey my second paragraph about should at least give you an answer to show were it doable it wouldn't be an identity problem.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answers these question, though it doesn't solve the problem. It does avoid resolving the problems, but it IS an answer. $\endgroup$ – Nanban Jim Jul 24 '15 at 23:27
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It would be impossible to have 99.999% accuracy with genetics completely out of the question (eye, voice, fingerprints, DNA, etc). DNA tests are accurate now with 99.9% accuracy when given valid samples.

Without using DNA, it would come down to memorized information and/or electronic verification. Lots of security questions or information about someone only you would know (cross checking). Digital security will hopefully be more secure and you may have to keep an implant or electronic id that is always signed to whatever your current DNA makeup is. There would have to be strict laws on keeping id with you at all times.

With advanced technology, though criminals will also advance. Forgeries, copies, fakes, and (identity) thefts will be just as prolific as now and will cause more harm than they do now. If someone can steal your identity card/chip or stalk you to know what you know, there is no way to prove with certainty that you are who you say you are.

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Probably they brand every child brand after birth with something like this?

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  • $\begingroup$ That's horrific! Society likely wouldn't put up with that kind of marking. It would have to be very very very compelling argument to overcome the association between branding and slavery. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 24 '15 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ If society is concerned with the ability to identify an individual that strongly, they will find ways to validate it. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 24 '15 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ Couldn't this be changed when appearance changes? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 24 '15 at 20:56
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Firstly: It's worth mentioning that genetics does not and cannot be used on its own to effect a change in a person. Genes are the blueprint your body is built to, but once you've been built all that changing the plans is going to do is confuse things.

Anyway: Let's assume some process that's capable of rebuilding a person to the exact specifications given in a certain genetic code. We still run into problems. While gross characteristics (height, eye/skin/hair colour) can be modified, some absolutely unique identifiers remain unique regardless of genetic interference. Examples are fingerprints, iris patterning and vocal patterns. These don't develop identically even given identical genetic structures, and so could potentially still be used.

Anyway: Let's assume that the appearance modifying tech is perfect, and that one person can become an absolutely down to the micron clone of another human, just with a different brain structure. Now we're down to some pretty esoteric non-memory based identification mechanisms. Two recommendations would be subconscious patterns of behaviour (tells) or walking gait. I favour gait. Even if your body is physically identical one person's brain will still send messages to the body in a unique way (as brain modding is not allowed). This means that any two people will use the same body differently. Remember how awkward you felt going through growth spurts in puberty? Modifying yourself would induce that, and different brains would settle for different ways of handling it. Long strides or short? Roll the hips or swivel the hips? Do you use the balls of your feet or put all your weight through your heels? Whole criminal cases have been based on patterns of wear on shoes that come from how a person habitually walks, and that isn't wholly a function of genetics.

Anyway: Lets assume that both the body and the brain/body links are identical. If your society is suitably advanced and the genetic modding is as regulated as you say, then a person's genetic history can be used as their ID. Use genome for everything, from paying for food to checking in for airline flights, and build in unique markers. Sure: a person with sufficient illegal links could get their UID changed to that of another person, but the instant they try to use it the wonderfully interlinked Genetic Security Grid (which track all legal genetic modifications and is linked to all genetic security devices) will throw up an error in the same way that credit card companies detect fraud. If your genome is used in the wrong place at the wrong time then the security forces descend, detain both clones and go through a lengthy interrogation process.

Anyway: There's still issues here in that a suitably clever criminal can change genome, meet their clone and switch places. This is where you apply the same processes as mints do. Embed a chip in every legally modified person. Use some decently scrambled identification information, and match the chip to a specific cocktail of drugs with long lasting metabolic rates. You can even go as far as encoding security information in bone striations detectable by X-Ray. Do this in a suitable way (along with physical measures on the chip such as micro-dimpling or miniature holographs) and it becomes nigh on impossible to match your genetic UID to someone else's without missing out a critical piece of information on the chip or in the drug cocktail or accidentally setting off the genetic fraud alarms.

All of the above assume a level of biological and technological prowess a long way ahead of our own. But I think that fits in with your world in general.

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Manipulation of the brain or brain chemistry is strictly prohibited

Given this rule, my first thought was ultra fast and hyper accurate brain scans of the outward folds and contours of the brain, or perhaps the network of blood vessels within it. Maybe you have to think of a phrase/picture/idea and the resulting patters of brain activity will identify you.

This seems to be the one physical part of the body that is relatively untouched by all this modification and thus the place to start.

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Anything over the Internet or phone can't use your physical appearance to identify you - why not take a page from their book?

Broadly, there are three forms of authentication:

  • Something you know like a password. If you don't have a shared password with them, they'll often ask you about semi-public information. In real life, if you call to cancel a credit-card, they'll ask you questions like "What type of car do you drive" or "What's your mother's maiden name?"

  • Something you have like a passport, employee badge, hardware authenticator, etc.

  • Something you are such as finger-prints, retinal scanner, DNA scan, etc. If people can truly alter all of these things at will in your world, then this category is useless.


So for your world, my advice would be: all citizens are required to carry some sort of identification badge at all time. Every badge has a secret PIN number associated with it.

If someone steals your badge and beats your pin-number out of you, they could steal your identity. But that would be even more work than stealing your identity in the real world!

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