Insights & Analyses

From caveman palm prints to modern passports, a history of verifying (and stealing) identity

It may not hold the distinction of being the world’s oldest profession, but the nefarious act of identity theft has a long and storied history. Take, for example, the tale of the False Dmitrys.

The death of Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible in March of 1584 later led to a number of impostors who all separately claimed to be Ivan’s youngest son, seeking to take the throne. Three of the identity thieves gained particular prominence, earning the names False Dmitriy I, II and III.

They were all appropriately labeled as liars: Historians believe that the real Dmitriy I actually died at the age of 8, in 1591.

That incident, part of Russia’s tumultuous “Time of Troubles,” is just one example of how verifying identity has always been a problem for humanity. One World Identity Executive Director Dasha Cherepennikova gave a brief history of identity on the latest episode of OWI’s State of Identity podcast.

“Even before we had passports and photographic documents, stealing identity, I think, has existed as long as identity itself,” Cherepennikova said.

In fact, she noted that perhaps the earliest example of human beings externally recording their identity may have come from prehistoric man. Some of the oldest cave paintings discovered are people’s handprints, letting others at the time know who may have lived in a certain location.

“This was a way of people sort of saying, ‘I was here,’ I guess, before writing,” she said.

Many centuries later, the first-known official passports were referenced in the Hebrew Bible, dating back to 450 B.C. At the time, travelers could provided a piece of paper from a higher authority that said the traveler was granted permission for their trip, requesting safe passage through foreign lands.

A more formal, international set of standards for passports wouldn’t become a reality until after World War I, when the League of Nations held a conference on passports in 1920.

Still, the United Nations didn’t actually standardize passports until 1980, under the International Civil Aviation Organization, which still oversees the official documents to this day.

The next generation of passports include biometrics to identify travelers, stored on a secure RFID chip. Presumably, they hope to prevent the world from spawning any further False Dmitriys.

To hear more, listen to Atzmon on the State of Identity podcast and subscribe to the show on iTunes.