Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Information Science and Technology


Lee W. McKnight


Artifact, Credential, Digital, Identity, Passport, Seal

Subject Categories

Library and Information Science | Public Policy


What does a digital identity token have to do with medieval seals? Is the history of passports of any use for enabling the discovery of Internet users' identity when crossing virtual domain boundaries during their digital browsing and transactions? The agility of the Internet architecture and its simplicity of use have been the engines of its growth and success with the users worldwide. As it turns out, there lies also its crux. In effect, Internet industry participants have argued that the critical problem business is faced with on the Internet is the absence of an identity layer from the core protocols of its logical infrastructure. As a result, the cyberspace parallels a global "territory" without any identification mechanism that is reliable, consistent and interoperable across domains. This dissertation is an investigation of the steps being taken by Internet stakeholders in order to resolve its identity problems, through the lenses of historical instances where similar challenges were tackled by social actors.

Social science research addressing the Internet identity issues is barely nascent. Research on identification systems in general is either characterized by a paucity of historical perspective, or scantily references digital technology and online identification processes. This research is designed to bridge that gap. The general question at its core is: How do social actors, events or processes enable the historical emergence of authoritative identity credentials for the public at large? This work is guided by that line of inquiry through three broad historical case studies: first, the medieval experience with seals used as identity tokens in the signing of deeds that resulted in transfers of rights, particularly estate rights; second, comes the modern, national state with its claim to the right to know all individuals on its territory through credentials such as the passport or the national identity card; and finally, viewed from the United States, the case of ongoing efforts to build an online digital identity infrastructure.

Following a process-tracing approach to historical case study, this inquiry presents enlightening connections between the three identity frameworks while further characterizing each. We understand how the medieval doctrines of the Trinity and the Eucharist developed by schoolmen within the Church accommodated seals as markers of identity, and we understand how the modern state seized on the term `nationality' - which emerged as late as in the 19th century - to make it into a legal fiction that was critical for its identification project. Furthermore, this investigation brings analytical insights which enable us to locate the dynamics driving the emergence of those identity systems. An ordering of the contributing factors in sequential categories is proposed in a sociohistorical approach to explain the causal mechanisms at work across these large phenomena. Finally this research also proposes historically informed projections of scenarios as possible pathways to the realization of authoritative digital identity. But that is the beginning of yet another story of identity.


Open Access