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The history of ID

To show you how IDs have evolved, in this blog we’ll take a detailed look at the history of ID. From the Babylon Empire to the current day, we’ll examine not only how ID has changed over the years, but also how these older forms of ID were verified.  

May 10th, 2022

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The history of identification dates back thousands of years. In fact, the first mention of a government collecting the personal information of its citizens dates to 3800 BC, during the Babylonian Empire.  

Since then, the way we have proven our identity has changed massively. Initially just pieces of paper, today's identification documents contain a number of security features that make them incredibly difficult to forge.

To show you how IDs have evolved, in this blog we’ll take a detailed look at the history of ID. From the Babylon Empire to the current day, we’ll examine not only how ID has changed over the years, but also how these older forms of ID were verified.  

What is an ID?

ID stands for identity document. This is a document that’s used to verify the identity of an individual. It’s usually an official card that contains your name and photograph or other information that proves who you are.

Identity documents take many forms. However, popular examples of identity documents include passports and driving licenses.

When did ID start getting circulated?

To uncover the complete history of ID, we have to travel back thousands of years.

As we mentioned above, the concept of identification can be traced back to the Babylonian Empire. However, the censuses carried out at this time only gathered information on the number of people and the resources available.

As time progressed, the way data was collected improved. Fast forward to the Roman Empire, and personalized information was collected for the first time. As a result, a variety of documents were introduced. These included birth certificates, land title deeds, and citizenship records.

However, although many of these documents are still issued today, the earliest example of what could be deemed ‘modern ID’ can be traced back to 1414. At this time, King Henry V of England was issued the first ever passport. Issued so citizens could prove their identity while abroad, these papers were then referred to as ‘safe conduct’ documents. Rather than being for foreign holidays, these documents ensured a citizen’s safety in a neighboring country when they were gifted by the monarch.

Following this, in 1829, the British Parliament enacted the reforms of Robert Peel. These reforms placed more emphasis on printed police records. For the first time, this meant that data could be stored in a personal document file and linked back to individuals using a unique numerical value. In essence, this was the precursor to the modern system we use today, where ID cards are linked to government databases.

What was an acceptable ID?

What was deemed an ‘acceptable ID’ very much depended on the era the document was issued. However, since the Roman Empire, birth certificates and land title deeds have both remained classified as acceptable forms of ID for one reason or another.

Ever since the first passport was issued in the 1400s, these documents have also been considered acceptable forms of ID. Of course, the passports we hold today are radically different from the simple slips of paper that were issued back then, but the premise of the document remains the same more than 600 years later.

How was it verified?

Throughout the history of ID, the way that different documents have been verified has varied widely. However, in spite of the fact that IDs have been around for thousands of years, the concept of verifying an ID by checking the information it holds against data on a centralized database is a modern concept.

Early passports, for example, contained the signature of the king himself (who was the passport issuer). Passports bearing the signature of Charles I are still in existence to this day.

However, from 1794, the office of the secretary of state took control of issuing passports. This is a function that the Home Office retains today. At this point, proper records were established and the information on a passport could be cross-referenced with official records for verification purposes, if required.

In the early 20th century, the modern passports we use today for overseas travel were first created. By this point, additional verification features were added. As well as a photograph and a signature, the document featured a personal description. However, the document would still be verified manually by inspecting the person and comparing them to the information on the document.

Pre and post war ID

After the British Parliament enacted the reforms of Robert Peel in 1829, countries around the world embraced the idea of identification cards. For example, the Netherlands started its own decentralized Personal Number (PN) system in 1849. However, the country only began to issue personal ID cards to each citizen in 1940.

Similarly, in this period, the United States also began to issue social security number cards, and the first batch was distributed in 1936. Following this, other countries began to follow suit and more governments around the world began to embrace ID cards.

In the UK, despite the fact that identity documents existed prior to World War I, many people simply had no need for them. Plus, eighteen different registers of personal information were used by government agencies, so the process of verifying information was incredibly disjointed. Due to the inefficiencies of such a system, during the war, the first National Registration was taken in Britain. As part of this, personal information on all adult members of the population was compiled in locally-held registers, and identity cards were issued. 

However, the primary use of the National Registration was to uncover how many men in England and Wales were eligible for national service. As a result, when this figure had been established (1,413,900 in case you were wondering), interest in National Registration and ID cards waned and many cards were lost completely.

Fast forward to the Second World War, and National Registration once again became a big talking point. But this time, the local registers were backed up by a comprehensive central register held at the Central National Register Office. As part of this, folded identity cards that contained a name and address were issued.

Crucially, because these new ID cards had to be shown to access rations, the new ID cards took hold and were used regularly. By 1950, they had also become a routine part of policing. Although the second national register came to an end in 1952, the National Registration number persisted and was used within the National Health Service, for voter registration, and for the National Insurance system.

How ID has changed over the years

The identification cards of today are completely different from the identity cards that existed in the pre-war era. After all, the initial passport that was issued to King Henry V was just a signed piece of paper.

However, with every iteration of ID since, the design of ID cards has become more complex. For example, in 1840, William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered the negative-positive photographic system. From this point, photographs could be used on IDs.

Similarly, in 1858, Sir William Herschel implemented ink fingerprints as manual signatures on wills and deeds. Over the next hundred years, this biometric breakthrough was fully realized. By 1980, the fingerprint classification system became fully automated in Japan and America, which both launched automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS).

On top of this, by the 1970s, the process of creating digital records for identification purposes also became common. For example, in 1977, the U.S. computerized its paper records and established a matching program capable of cross-referencing between various banking and governmental bodies. 

This digitization paved the way for smart identity cards, which were introduced by Germany, Singapore, the Czech Republic, and Spain beginning in the late 1980s. Using new technologies, these cards contained a variety of information ranging from date of birth and digital signatures to biometric data such as fingerprints.

Now, the vast majority of ID cards are smart cards that feature a difficult-to-forge embedded integrated circuit. Plus, new technologies also allow identity cards to contain biometric information, such as a photograph; face, hand, or iris measurements; or fingerprints.

Book a consultation with Veriff

Today, verifying the identity of a customer is both simple and essential. After all, verifying the identity of your customers can prevent bad actors from accessing your services. Plus, when it’s done correctly, you don’t need to sacrifice conversions.

With the help of our ID verification platform, you can verify identity documents in real-time. Using this software, you can detect fake and tampered IDs, verify document data, and ensure that you comply with AML and KYC regulations.

Want to learn more about how we can help you verify your customer IDs?Book a consultation with Veriff today.

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