Can we reduce crime by learning how we combine our real and cyber identities?

The three-year research study, which will investigate our ‘Super-Identity’, aims to tackle the issues associated with unreliable and counterfeit identification and provide a faster and more efficient way of combatting the problem. The study is being led by the University of Southampton.

Professor Sue Black and colleagues in the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee will focus on the computer-based evaluation of biometric indicators of identity particularly concentrating on areas such as anatomy of the hand and legal admissibility.

‘The Super-Identity project will be a significant challenge as we try to align the worlds of physical and cyber identity,’ said Professor Black, who featured alongside colleagues from Dundee in the BBC series ‘History Cold Case’.

‘The fluidity of our modern identity and our reliance on the internet as a powerful means through which we increasingly live our lives, challenges us to find previously unknown connections between the two worlds.’

Recent findings from the National Fraud Authority (Oct 2010), which is part of the Home Office, estimate that the risks of identity fraud, and its knock-on effects, cost the UK more than £2.7 billion a year. Researchers hope the Super-Identity project will provide an enterprising and unique solution to this crime.

Psychologist Dr Sarah Stevenage, Head of Psychology at the University of Southampton, who is leading the project, explained, ‘The capacity to identify one another is vitally important. It underpins social dialogue, commercial transactions, individual entitlements to goods and services, and issues of legal and criminal responsibility. In today’s society, each of these activities can take place both within the real world and the cyber world, making the concept of identity and the process of identification, more challenging than ever before.

‘With the problems associated with identity-fraud becoming ever more of a financial burden to individuals and to society as a whole, we believe that the benefits from this research will be substantial. With better tools for human identification, we will be more able to successfully protect our personal privacy and data security, whilst improving our ability to identify the true suspect in crimes against society.’

The assumption underlying the Super-Identity project is that whilst there may be many dimensions to an individual’s identity – some more reliable than others -, all should ultimately reference back to a single core identity or a ‘Super-Identity’.

By collating information about real-world and online identities, (such as measures of the face, walk, voice, or online browsing behaviour), the project seeks to find out how to recognise this core identity more effectively.

The first stage of the project is to define the set of identity measures across a diverse demographic of the population. In light of the potential impact upon our fundamental human rights, social, legal and ethical concerns cannot be ignored. As such these aspects shall also be examined, with particular attention paid to privacy and data protection issues. Once this framework is in place, extensive testing will be conducted to determine the accuracy and reliability of automated and human identification from each measure, and from the combination of measures, in order to provide an identity decision in which you can have confidence.

The £1.85 million project is funded by EPSRC under the Global Uncertainties Programme, and is supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, under its Visualization and Data Analytics Program. The research team includes experts from automated biometrics, psychology, forensic anthropology, human-computer interaction, mathematical modelling, complex data visualisation and IT law. The study is led by the University of Southampton and includes the universities of Dundee, Bath, Kent, Leicester, Oxford, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (USA).

Notes for editors

  1. More information about the project can be found at
  2. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK.


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