The Problem with Unique Identifiers

"Ah, excuse me? Is there anyone here?"

"Oh, hi! Let me guess, you just arrived in town, and you need some help finding an address."

"Well, not quite. I am visiting, but I was sent here to get a 'Number'."

"Yeah, right. This is a joke, right? There must be a hidden camera in your knapsack, or at least a microphone, and we're being videotaped from across the street. Well, I don't mind. It sure breaks the monotony around here. So, come on, tell me -- who sent you?"

"No, I think this is quite serious. Several people have sent me. Come to think of it, everyone I've had to talk to since arriving told me to come here and get a 'Number'. The bank, the post office, some government agencies, and even some stores all told me that before they could help me, I had to show them my 'Number' -- they way they said it, it's as though it has to be capitalized -- and I shouldn't be having any problems with it. It took a while each time, but I had to explain that I don't even know what a 'Number' is, and, well, that's about the time they all tell me to come here."

"This really is a joke. Everyone has a Number."

"No, I know many people who don't. Let me explain. My friends and I and our families live on a commune that is very isolated. And I mean isolated. There's no mail, no newspapers, no radio, no television, no telephone -- no communication with the outside world. Our only contact with the rest of society is once every ten years when we send someone to make sure we're a part of the census. This decade, it's my turn, and -- well, obviously, a lot has changed since the last decade."

"Oh, I'm sorry. You're the first adult needing a Number since... since... well, since everyone got their Numbers."

"What in the world is a 'Number'?"

"Well, I can see why you don't know, since you have a backlog of ten years of news to catch up on. Do you know anything about computers?"

"A bit, but all of my knowledge about them is from the Sixties, especially FORTRAN on 360's."

"For what on three six which? Oh, never mind. Anyway, one of the problems the people who used computers always had was uniquely identifying people. You know, like you would be known by one or more different numbers by everyone you dealt with. So, you'd have numbers for the bank, numbers for the utilities, numbers for insurance, and so on. And often the numbers would change, such as when people moved or got married. It caused major headaches for everyone -- for the people who had to remember, or at least keep track of, their numbers, and for the people who had to figure out new and better ways of assigning numbers to people."

"I just noticed that you're talking in past tense. Does that mean that the problems no longer cause headaches?"

"Actually, it means that the problems don't exist anymore, because all the different types of numbers don't exist anymore."

"What happened?"

"Well, a lot of people and companies and, especially, the governments, decided that it would be better for all concerned to come up with a 'Universal Unique Identifier'. It's supposed to be abbreviated 'UUI', but everyone just calls it the Number. Anyway, it's a number that is unique to that one person. It's assigned to you for life, and there's nothing that can change it, nor is there anything that can duplicate it between two people, even twins."

"Why, what's so special about it?"

"Step around here, and I'll explain while I set up. They decided not to base the Number on any sort of assignment from a list. People lose or forget those types of numbers all the time. The governments -- it was funny, because they were all alike, whether they were communist or democratic, having the same objectives -- the governments wanted some method of assigning a Number so that the Number couldn't be lost. They wanted a method so that the Number could be determined directly from something about the person. Here, wash your hands and forearms with this."

"Why the alcohol for cleaning?"

"You'll see. So, someone came up with an idea that quickly proved successful: assign the Number based upon the person's DNA. The beauty of it was, of course, that it meant that anything biological could be assigned a Number. Dogs, cats, roses, it didn't matter. In fact, that's why I gave you a rough time at the start. For a couple years now, the only adults who come in here, other than people needing a Number for their pets or babies, are people who are either lost or need change for the bus."

"Are you saying everyone has a Number?"

"Oh, sure. They did the whole world -- well, except your commune, of course -- in less than two years. This machine here does all the magic."

"Hmm. So it analyzes DNA? I didn't think that was even possible."

"Yeah, but your last experience with technology was probably punched cards. Especially in the last two decades, they have made great strides in understanding DNA, even to the point of creating modified, or even completely new, species of life. It's controversial -- okay, now place your arms, palm down, in here up to the elbow -- but it's also extremely fascinating. Who would have believed that you could cure genetic diseases like, oh, sickle cell anemia simply by taking a compound that compensated for, and corrected, bad genes?"

"So what is this machine going to do?"

"Bwah! Hah! Hah! Sorry, but I like imitating Dr. Frankenstein when I flip this switch. Just relax. What it does is take your fingerprints, as well as some tissue samples from several points on your hands and arms. You might feel some tingling. That will just be the sampling pins. Washing with alcohol was just a precaution against infection."

"What happens if I've had a blood donation or something?"

"Oh, it picks that up. That's why it takes samples from several spots. It compares the all the results, and ignores any DNA that isn't you. In all those two years, they never had a problem."

"What did they do for people without arms?"

"Oh, any part of the body will do. The arms are preferred only because the machine also checks up on the fingerprints -- it was someone's idea of a verification. There, it's finished taking the samples. You can take your arms out now. So, you're on a commune. Why don't you have to come in contact with society more frequently? Doesn't anyone need to eat or see a doctor?"

"Our commune is self-sufficient. Lots of food, and some of the best doctors a person could ask for. It started out as a fun thing for us to try over the summer, and we took it very seriously. There are no regrets. A lot of people had dreams in the Sixties, but we've been able to live them."

"Hmm. Well, let's have a look at the screen here. Good. The fingerprints are done. See? This is all the information on file for you just from your fingerprints. I like what it says about your address: 'Unknown (circa 1969)'. Gee, you have a police record like I've never seen. What are all these run-ins with the law that you've had all about?"

"In my day, they were called 'peace protests'. I know, kind of hard to believe, given my gray hair, but in the Sixties I was one of many teenagers trying to make changes for the better."

"Hey, I'm getting a kick just from the fact that you needed a Number. Oh, my! That's never happened before!"

"Why, what's wrong? What's all the flashing about?"

"Well, ah, gee.... Just a sec. I need to make a phone call. Hmm, let's see. Phone book, phone book -- ah, there it is. UUI Control -- 555-1234."

"From what you've told me, what this screen is saying means trouble for at least one of us."

"Nah. I'm sure it's just a simple -- Hi. This is Joseph over at City Central. I'm in the process of giving a Number to someone who doesn't have one yet, and my screen is flashing like crazy, with a message 'Duplicate Universal Unique Identifier assigned, unable to continue'.... Oh, you know. Right, I keep forgetting that all these machines are linked. Oh? This was never supposed to happen, was it? Guess what. You and someone else who already has a Number have the same DNA. Different fingerprints, but the same DNA."

"But that's impossible, isn't it?"

"Oh. I see. So it's not absolutely impossible, but as close as you can get. So what do we do now? This guy needs a Number. Oh, there is a contingency plan? Good, what is it? Yeah, he's still here. Yeah, he's right in front of me. He looks a little embarrassed, but otherwise he looks okay. What? What do you mean, 'not for long'?...."

Vernon R.J. Schmid


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Copyright ©1988, 1997 Vernon R.J. Schmid. All rights reserved.
Web Page Created: 1997-09-01. Last Updated: 2005-01-28.