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Imagine a world in which everyone looks and sounds exactly the same. Age and sex simply do not exist. This world has always been like this.

Also imagine that everyone in this world is still an individual, identity is still desired, and not everyone is always honest.

How does one, in personal, public and legal environments, ensure the preservation of their personal identity - and more importantly minimise the chances of their identity being taken on by others?

Fingerprints and retina scans are exactly the same.

Legally speaking, how does one confirm any given identity in the above situation?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Aify, Pavel Janicek, Hohmannfan, Frostfyre, Cort Ammon Dec 12 '16 at 22:28

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ The most important question underneath, in my opinion, is "why would identity be desired?". That is a very important node to solve, because it's not for granted that it would. $\endgroup$ – FraEnrico Dec 12 '16 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ When they have own original identities, what stops them to make different haircuts etc? $\endgroup$ – Antoine Hejlík Dec 12 '16 at 8:04
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    $\begingroup$ Any answer based on "legally speaking" means the legality is wholly dependent of the laws of the society. If a given law legimates any given identification method, then that's legal. This can include methods that would be illegal in our world. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 12 '16 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ What is preventing environmental impacts from changing people? Identical twins can rapidly look different. I don't mean this as criticism of your question, but it might help an answer. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Dec 12 '16 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ But they are in fact different ages: you must mean they look the same regardless of age. If you obscure the juvinile form, you still have to contend with getting old. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 12 '16 at 12:18

12 Answers 12

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Practically speaking, you've described the Internet. On a basic level, every connection appears to a web server the same way: as an IP address with maybe some possibly-falsified identification tacked on. Unsurprisingly, there's been a lot of research into how to certifiably identify people on the Internet, and we can can use many similar methods in our hypothetical society.

Body Modification and Personal Style

For day-to-day, on-the-street identification, clothing and accessories as well as more permanent body modification such as hairstyles, piercings, tattoos, and scarification would all provide a means of identifying individuals. This is analogous to the screen names, email addresses, and whatnot that people use and reuse throughout the net. It wouldn't hold up in a court of law, but it's quick and simple as long as everyone's more-or-less buying into the system and playing along (e.g. not deliberately cribbing one another's styles).

Friend-of-a-Friend and Public Recognition

As a slightly more secure method of introduction, look for the personal connection. How do you know who someone else is? Either ask someone you trust, or ask a bunch of other people who would know.

Of course, if that doesn't resolve the issue, go to the next section to use more secure methods.

Secret Knowledge and Cryptographic Methods

For the most secure situations, you'd want to use some of the cryptographic techniques that have been developed to definitely identify oneself online. Think public-private keys and similar methods. I admit that this isn't my area of expertise, so I'll let others better-informed weigh in, but I can imagine a central public-key registry that is used to verify that the individual claiming to be Bob knows Bob's private passkey.

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  • $\begingroup$ The trouble with a central key-chain is that the government... That's a good plot point, if you can argue why it should be the case. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Dec 12 '16 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ Also, hair. You didn't mention hair. $\endgroup$ – mbomb007 Dec 12 '16 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4 It doesn't necessarily have to be government-controlled. For example, "Sign my PHP key!". If enough reputable individuals/groups certify that this key belongs to this person, it can be reasonably assumed that it does. $\endgroup$ – Salda007 Dec 12 '16 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Salda007 That's key-chains. You said "central public-key registry", which implies that there is a single public-key registry. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Dec 12 '16 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ Cryptographic Methods is how we operate in open source circles -- essentially, your key is your identity, because there is nothing else we can sensibly validate. After that, it's essentially a prisoner's dilemma, you are given access to the extent that you betraying others' trust shouldn't give you more than you already put in, so it is never beneficial to defect. $\endgroup$ – Simon Richter Dec 12 '16 at 20:32
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Your statement that "this world has always been like this" negates any technological solution. The species must, until the development of any technology or even clothing, have had a non-visual way of identifying each other.

People who all look the same may very well not notice visual differences in others, because those aren't the markers they use identify others.

Smell is the most animal of the non-visual identifiers, humans aren't very good at identifying each others smells, but there's no reason this should be true of your species.

Their identical appearance suggests also that they're non-visual in other ways, so when they start to seek ways to personalise their appearance to others, it may not be visual that they go for. We would start by thinking about facial markings, clothes and hairstyles, but these are all visual. They may start thinking about modifying smell, sound or maybe rhythm of movement.

It's important when considering a species like this to avoid getting stuck in our very visual mindset.

Sounding the same also suggests that they're primarily non-verbal. Languages and accents spring up very quickly among disparate groups. So the audible language they use is a recent convenience for some reason. What is their primary means of communication? Because personality will carry across in that, as will regional or family mannerisms.

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  • In personal environment: How do you differentiate perfect twins? Mostly through their clothes and the way they behave/talk. It would be the same in your world.

  • In a public environment : Each person constantly carries a nametag on his chest specifying his unique ID and his role in society.

  • In a legal environment : Fingerprint and retina scans can differentiate perfect twins because they are random for each person. It would be the same in your world, when you really need to be sure the person is who he/she claims to be you can use these scientific methods.

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    $\begingroup$ Fred, I suggested fingerprint and retina scans in my answer. Refer to the comments for the OP's response. Down in flames! $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 12 '16 at 9:15
  • $\begingroup$ There is a distinction between what would be and what could be. In the asker's world, where age and sex do not exist, how do you know for certain that fingerprints would be like they are in our world, or even exist at all? Though the prospect that they could gives the asker a convenient solution. $\endgroup$ – Devsman Dec 12 '16 at 21:35
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Skin marks

Like scars, moles, etc. The skin of every living being is under constant attack by many things and can't recover perfectly from everything and eventually something will be visible and permanent.
The effect would be that newborn babies are completely indistinguishable, but as they grow older, they become more different.

Now, let's assume that the skin of these aliens regenerates impossibly well and nothing under heavy mutilation would prevent it from recovering to the common state. And that they all dress the same and that they need to identify people across the room, beyond smell range.

Body movement

Any 3D animator could tell you how much information the simple act of walking can tell you about someone. Everyone walks differently, makes different gestures, different tics, etc.
We humans already realize of so much of this that we can sort of distinguish someone we know deeply from an otherwise perfect imitator. An alien species that rely on this could just get to that phase much quicker.

Also these aliens would come as total creeps to humans, since they'd have to observe (and stare at :) people for a while to be able to identify someone in different situations.

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Given your stipulations, I still think it would be easy to subvert the "everyone looks the same" thing, by using tattoos.

  • Facial tattoos would allow people to make themselves instantly recognisable. In the world you've described, where people yearn for an identity, I would expect pretty much everybody to have one. The few exceptions would actually stand out more despite being identical. Unscrupulous individuals might try to copy the tattoos of others in order to pass themselves off as the other person. Identity theft in its purest form. These people might use temporary tattoos to enable to them to change identity, but I think most people would want their marks to be permanent because the whole point is that they become part of your identity.

  • Tattoos on hidden parts of the body would be useful for private identification. Anything from proof of identity at the bank to recognising your lover.

Note that tattoos don't have to be done with ink. If your setup means that regular tattoo parlours might not exist, people could still do this. Some traditional societies marked themselves by using a sharp knife and pigments made from plants. It may be more painful than modern methods, but people who really want to be unique will go to great lengths to achieve it. Other kinds of disfigurement might also be added into the mix -- ear notches, tongue splitting, tooth filing... not things I'd consider, but if they can make you stand out from the crowd then your protagonists would be willing.

Doing it this way would also make it a lot harder for dishonest people to fake it; a temporary tattoo that can wash off just isn't going to be an option for impersonating someone with patterns gouged into their face.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excuse me, but it is a good idea and a courtesy to other WB users to read the other answers before posting your own. There is already an answer suggesting using tattoos. It was posted seven (7) hours before yours. Sometimes similar answers can be posted simultaneously and that can't be helped. Recently another question was beset by a rash of similar answers where it was obvious the other answers hadn't been read. If I find someone else has posted my proposed answer before me, I grumble under my breath and move on. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 13 '16 at 4:19
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ID chips are implanted into the body. In order to identify a person, the chip needs to be scanned.

Technology is available already today, like RFID chips.

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  • $\begingroup$ This would certainly work for law enforcement and the like, but would common people carry around these scanners? What would they have done before the tech was available? And can we violate these theoretical people's reasonable privacy concerns? Good answer, but needs more meat :) $\endgroup$ – Weckar E. Dec 12 '16 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ I know, I'm not happy with it either yet. Another thing might be some empathically working mechanism, but I haven't a good idea about it now. $\endgroup$ – Alexander von Wernherr Dec 12 '16 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ Much of the world's population already carries around a compact handheld computer with more than enough power to scan a chip like that (i.e. a cellphone). Heck, even without implantable chips, cell phones could be used to confirm identity. The "how-to" for that exceeds the scope of this comment, but this sort of thing is right up cryptography's alleyway. Public-private keys and all that. $\endgroup$ – Salda007 Dec 12 '16 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ @WeckarE. No. This wouldn't violate their reasonable privacy concerns. Scanners only need to be used whenever a person needs to be identified. The same way we use drivers' licences, passports, Social Security ID, and as in some countries identity cards. With otherwise identical individuals chip scanning would be both reasonable and normal practice. This is a good answer. Plus one from me. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 12 '16 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ Walk around with augmented reality scanners that turn the info into MMO pop ups. I mean, if you're going high tech, go for it. $\endgroup$ – The Nate Dec 12 '16 at 14:21
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Effectively this population of phenotypically identical emortals constitutes a population of unageing twins. Like twins their fingerprints and retinal patterns will not be identical.

Therefore, persons can be registered by their fingerprints and/or their retinal patterns. The technology to read fingerprints and retinal patterns, especially if their application is required on the scale to identify persons within a sufficiently large population, is relatively trivial for a society with advanced enough technology to support an unageing population.

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, they are in fact identical even to that level. Great real world reference though. $\endgroup$ – Weckar E. Dec 12 '16 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ That's impossible, he sputtered indignantly. What a spoilsport you are in negating part of reality. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 12 '16 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, what a spoilsport I am for clarifying things about what "exactly" the same means. $\endgroup$ – Weckar E. Dec 12 '16 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ Clarification is good, provided it doesn't become moving the goal posts. This can happen inadvertently when part of your assumptions runs into something you, as the OP, hadn't foreseen. In that case, you need to clarify your own thinking about the question. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it can degenerate it into a game of frustrating answers. Fortunately this rare. Definitely not so, with this question. Need to refine my thinking on how exact "exact" is. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 12 '16 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @WeckarE. I am going to edit your question to reflect this. Not everyone reads all the comments on every answer. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Dec 12 '16 at 15:24
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I would say "language". Every person would have a different way to choose words and expressions, and their world view and psychological status is reflected in how they speak.

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    $\begingroup$ Was my idea at first too, but the question says "and sounds exactly the same" that's why I discarded it. $\endgroup$ – Alexander von Wernherr Dec 12 '16 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ I've read that more as meaning "pitch" and not "vocabulary". The idea of an individual vocabulary rings good to me. Consider the Romans: They had common first and second (family) names, so they adopted a third call name. This situation here is somewhat more complex, but still a linguistic solution is a very nice idea. $\endgroup$ – Boldewyn Dec 12 '16 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ This was my thought too. In addition, if everyone looked identical, people would learn to recognize the subtle differences we as humans may not ever notice. Most people can recognize accents quite well, and some people can even narrow down the town you were born from your accent. If everyone had the ability to do this, ramped up to 11, and also being able to better read body language etc. it would be fairly straightforward to identify individuals. $\endgroup$ – Mike.C.Ford Dec 12 '16 at 13:44
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This is a suitably low tech solution. Tattoo a suitable identification tag or code somewhere on their bodies where it can be easily seen. For example, on their foreheads.

A tattoo is a permanent mark made by putting ink into the skin. Tattoos may be made on human or animal skin. Tattoos on humans are a type of body modification (a way of changing the body), but tattoos on animals are most often used for identification. People sometimes get tattoos to show that they belong to a gang or culture group.

Source is here

The identification tag can be bar code, if their technology has progressed to the equivalent of the later twentieth century or simply their name or it could be registration identification code like vehicle number plates. The later preserves their anonymity while helping to make them identifiable.

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  • $\begingroup$ That'll just prompt an industry of identity faking/theft $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 12 '16 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Nahshonpaz So will any other identification system. The permanency of tattoos should make faking or theft difficult, however, substitution or replacement of persons becomes possible in the OP's scenario. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 12 '16 at 11:26
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I notice that a number of solutions assume a certain level of technology (i.e., ability to implant RFID chips or do a tattoo).

Different methods that apply to a low(er)-tech culture might include:

  • Evolutionary:

    • Difference in pheromones or chemical secretions.

    • Difference in taste (think: a sentient race that licks one another in greeting).

  • Someone made an excellent point about not getting fixated on the visual, but if visual differentiation is necessary, what about cultural scarring?

    • Each major life event could/would be represented by the addition of a new scar.

    • A person's life history could be read at a glance by looking at them.

    • An abbreviated version of their life's history could serve as a "name" or verbal identifier, and could change over time (i.e., "Richest man in village" over time might become "Poor man who was once richest man in village" or "Poor Rich Man").

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Logically speaking, if there is a need to differentiate between two identical humans, there must be a way to differentiate the two otherwise there would be no need to differentiate them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Mentally they are different. They are individuals. That creates the need. $\endgroup$ – Weckar E. Dec 12 '16 at 12:59
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If the "world has always been this way" then there would be other methods in which to identify people. If everyone is identical down even to the retina and fingerprint scans, then non-genetic methods would be used.

Whatever the method, the members of this society would be significantly better at identifying these differences than outsiders. Think of someone who is blind, would enhance the abilities of touch and hearing. In fact, a society which evolved ignoring physical characteristics would be LESS LIKELY to focus on the physical appearance (no tattoos, etc), but instead would focus on attributes that demonstrate the most meaning to them.

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