How Anonymity and Identity are Reconfigured in Software-Sorted Realms
Prof. Dr. Gertraud Koch, Universität Hamburg

SP 3 examines the latest processes in Germany and the UK concerning health insurance administration and ist digitalisation. Increasing amounts of personal  information transmitted via different sorts of plastic cards reconfigure social practices, generate specific skills of information management and re-classify social groups. The project distinguishes three types of such cards: The mandatory identity cards (type A), other cards that are not obligatory but still more or less indispensible in daily routines; debit and credit cards, membership cards, health insurance cards, or tickets (type B); and optional plastic or cardboard cards, like bonus and customer cards, frequent flyer cards etc. (type C).

Behind those inconspicuous pieces of paper or plastic there lie scripts (Akrich 1992) or programs (Leroi-Gourhan 1993) and infrastructures (Leigh Star 1999), realized by information technologies and subject to legal regulations. They define a specific relationship between the card holder and the service provider and as such have a social character. Which data is stored and how it might be processed is a recurrent subject of political controversies and critique by data protection/privacy activists.

Recent trends in card development indicate an increase in information storage, the integration of different functionalities on particular cards and an inter-linking of different card systems, developments all pointing towards a coming synthesis of all these functionalities of cards within a single smartphone device.  These processes of intensified and personalized information transfer potentially trigger a loss of anonymity. However, a closer look reveals that practices of anonymization are a central element in what is actually happening, too. When personal data is categorized and typified according to income, level of debt, marital status, disease patterns, frequency of medical consultations, consumption patterns etc., critical consequences for the individual arise. By thus becoming part of so-called Big Data, the individual – while at the same time not couting individually any more – becomes part of new forms of anonymous social relationships. This reciprocal relation between personalized data collection and anonymizing data processing practices constitutes a basic principle for the processing of Big Data collections.

In practice, nevertheless, different types of cards are subject to completely different legal regulations, to variations in technical infrastructures and to different meanings attributed by individuals and societies. This leads to a number of questions: Which principles structure the treatment of anonymity by different actors involved in the use of card systems? How do actors deal with the tension between the need for anonymity and the need for identity? Which practices of anonymization and identification/ personalization are used? Which norms and social scripts are inscribed into infrastructures? How do infrastructures, the practices of actors and legal regulations interact? Which intensities of software sorting can be identified and what is their social acceptance? Which legal problems and necessary modifications can be observed? These questions will be approached in relation to the three card types (A-C). For each type of card, an example will be analyzed in both countries (UK and Germany). During the first phase of research, an „ethnography of infrastructures“ (Leigh Star 1999) will figure out which regimes of anonymity are configured by the interaction of socio-technical infrastructures, social practice and legislation in the different areas. In the second phase, research explores the practices of users. The main question will be whether and how their practices relate to the regimes of anonymity established by card issuing institutions, and if these practices seem adequate in the light of the users’ needs for anonymity and identity.