I love to travel. I have been to former countries (East Germany), future countries (Palestine), falling countries (Syria), rising countries (Estonia), peaceful countries (Iceland), and warring countries (Iraq).
On every trip, I needed a passport – an official government document that certifies my identity, citizenship, and ability to travel. Beyond that, a passport theoretically gives me some degree of protection from political and criminal harassment.
Exploring cyberspace is not the same thing as carrying books, socks, and a handful of cash across the Zambezi River, but the World Wide Web has made it possible for humans to visit many places that they would otherwise never see.
For example, even though a U.S. citizen cannot currently obtain an Iranian visa, it is now possible to read Iranian newspapers, watch Iranian television, challenge Iranian chess master, and find an Iranian sweetheart. In the future, the evolution of information technology will allow us to do even more.
As I travel through this new, digital Planet Earth, hitchhiking on electrons at light speed, what is my passport? In some cases, it is my Internet Protocol (IP) address, which in theory says where I am from (unless I use Tor). In other cases, it is the domain of my email address: vonNeumann@princeton.edu (I wish).
However, given the global migration to social media, most likely your passport in cyberspace will be your social media profiles. Your picture, biography, and commentary are intimately you – neither an IP nor a domain offers such legitimacy and credibility.
You need a digital, social media passport because cyberspace is big: Facebook already has more inhabitants than China, and the world tweets 500 million times a day. On Twitter, you can follow (or be followed) by the citizens of any country, including North Korea. There are technical limitations (China’s “Great Firewall”), regional barriers (Russia’s VK) and divine dictates (Iran’s Halal Intranet), but in general, social media sites aspire to be international spaces where anyone from anywhere may confabulate at any time.
But, just as the real world can be a dangerous place, the relative anonymity of digital communications makes Internet-based threats extremely common. And just as real passports can be forged or stolen, so can social media accounts. With your online credentials in hand, anything can happen – from crime to espionage, terrorism, and war – in your name.
And what about all those services that rely on passports to let you in? The need for security has never been more critical. Because it takes no more than 15 minutes to build a fraudulent profile, organizations need the internet equivalent of TSA (though hopefully more effective) to screen who is coming in and out of their digital gates. Passports, in the form of social accounts, are easily forged online – do you know who’s slipping through security?