The Evolution of Identification

ID is not a modern phenomenon. Throughout history, identification has been decisive for determining access to political power, freedom of movement and economic inclusion.

The Evolution of Identification

October 27, 2015

A legal identity is so critical to nearly every aspect of contemporary life in the developed world that many of us scarcely stop to think about it, or, for that matter, to consider what it would mean not to have one. By scanning cards and inputting numbers, we can gain access to education, employment, the electoral process, travel and much more. How did we get here, and where might we be headed?

The evolution of ID has been driven by an increasing need for both efficiency and certainty in establishing that we are who we say we are. It involves the history of how human migration, technological progress and increasingly complicated transactions that have shaped how people and communities interact:

Pre-History: Handprints 


Cave paintings estimated to be 31,000 years old are accompanied by handprints. Archeologists say prehistoric people used the markings as signatures.

Ancient Persia: Traveling paper

The first known traveling paper was issued in 450 BCE in ancient Persia. Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes, requested permission to travel to Judah. The king gave him a letter addressed to “to the governors of the province beyond the river,” asking for safe passage for Nehemiah. Evidence suggests that women in Persia would have had access to this same kind of document, as the culture was remarkably egalitarian for the time and documents reveal that noblewomen owned property and used personal seals for administrative correspondence.

Ancient Rome: Wooden diptych

Citizens of ancient Rome had 30 days to register a child’s birth with Roman officials. After the father presented seven witnesses, a wooden diptych became the child’s proof of citizenship. While soldiers and immigrants could become full citizens under certain circumstances, women and slaves could not.

Medieval Europe: Seals and coats of arms

04_Medieval_Europe_Coat of Arms

These insignia, used during the late Middle Ages, were created to be distinct enough to be used as personal identification markers, in addition to demonstrating a person’s collective affiliation. “Powerful and wealthy people identified themselves through their coats of arms and through the display of their social privileges, most importantly, followers and servants,” says Valentin Groebner, author of Who Are You? Identification, Deception and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe“Seals and coats of arms come up with the rise of written documentation, from the 12th century onward, and spread very quickly from nobles to church institutions to cities, guilds and their members.”

Industrial Revolution: Passports


During the 19th century, the development and extension of the railroads proved to be a great boon to many countries—tourists began crossing borders and spending money. Subsequently, many government authorities relaxed rules for entering countries. That changed after World War I, when modern-day passports that required photographs became ubiquitous.

Early 20th Century: Driver’s licenses

New York State began requiring a license to operate an automobile in 1903. The cost: $1. It took some time for other states to follow suit—in 1935,  nine states still did not require individual licenses. While many people disapproved of women driving at that time, no laws prohibited it. After women won the right to vote in 1920, driving an automobile became another indicator of a woman’s independence and modernity.

1960s: Magnetic stripe cards

Forrest Parry invented the magnetic stripe card, used on credit cards and identification badges, in the early 1960s. This enabled merchants to conduct business more quickly and seamlessly, as they no longer had to evaluate customers’ credit histories before making a non-cash sale.

1970s: Smart cards

 08_Smart Card Image (1)

Roland Moreno invented the cards that had embedded computer chips, now used for bank cards, identity cards and driver’s licenses. In 1976, he first demonstrated his invention by making an electronic payment. This new payment structure made it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to accept credit cards and thus grow revenue—one survey found that 83% of small businesses said their sales increased after they began accepting credit cards. Now, smartphone apps enable even microbusinesses like farm stands and bake sales to accept electronic payments.

21st Century: Biometric IDs

As technology makes identities easier to forge, governments and businesses have continued to develop systems to prevent fraud. The war on terror led governments worldwide to adopt biometric identificationprograms that use fingerprints and iris scans to verify identity. Biometric technology is now used in places like South Africa and Pakistan to counter fraud in government payments.

What’s ahead: Biometric grows up and goes everywhere


Already today, examples of heartbeat-identity technology are enabling users to store their heartbeat patterns on wristbands to authenticate access to smartphones. This points to the way to a future of persistent authentication, where such systems won’t be limited just to smartphones—they’ll be integrated across transactions and ID touchpoints more generally. This will allow automatic authentication in real time at each point ID is needed—making identification more seamless than ever.