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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Who are you? And can you prove that, in today's digital world? Identity is the biggest problem, and opportunity, facing just about every online service out there. The result is that for-profit corporations are increasingly making inroads into areas where governments can't or won't tread.

Driving the news: Apple, this week, announced a slew of new services at a star-studded California event. Its shiny new AirPods and iPads and iMacs, by contrast, were revealed with almost no fanfare at all. One big difference: While gadgets are hardware that can be bought anonymously and given to anybody, services are inextricably tied, from the day they're bought, to a single identity.

  • A new ecosystem is emerging. Apple ID encompasses biometric data (your face) and financial information (through Apple Card and other cards uploaded to your Apple wallet), and it powers all of Apple's services.
  • Already you can simply tap your Apple Watch to travel on London's public transit. It's not inconceivable that your passport or green card could end up on there, allowing you to cross borders with a wave of your wrist.

Wireless providers want to be part of this market, too. (Realistically, they already are.) Who you are can be defined biometrically — you're the person with this face and those fingerprints — but it can also be defined geographically. You are the person located at a specific location at a specific time.

  • The promise of 5G is that it will allow hyper-specific geolocation. If someone claiming to be me is trying to make a credit-card purchase at a specific cash register, my simple physical presence at that register, as verified by my cellphone provider, can effectively authenticate my identity.

Mastercard aspires to be at the forefront of the privatization of identity. Its new white paper lays out an expansive vision: "A child born today will not have a bank card, hold a passport, or carry cash," it says. The paper puts forth some simple and sensible principles for how digital identity should be managed, starting with the idea that individuals, rather than corporations, should own their own data.

  • We reveal too much personal information today. In order to enter a bar, for instance, we might need to prove that we're over 21. But doing so involves handing over a state-issued document that includes our name, photograph, exact date of birth and address — all in plaintext. The bar doorman does not need all that information, nor should we be obliged to give it to him.
  • The existing information grid is limited, as anybody who has moved to a new country knows. Doing so all too often means effectively losing information about our creditworthiness, health records, professional qualifications and many other attributes. An internationally interoperable identity system could solve all those problems.

The bottom line: Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga says that people don't want to participate in an identity system that's controlled by the government. Stories from China's dystopia, not to mention recent troubles at India's national Aadhaar identity service, might seem to reinforce his point. Still, there's something discomfiting about the prospect of multinational giants monetizing their identity-as-a-service platforms to the tune of billions of dollars per year.

Go deeper: Axios' Kim Hart and Sara Fischer reveal just how many companies are already monetizing your identity.

Go deeper

Banks cash in as Wall Street blows out Main Street

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America’s big banks capped off a winning year, led by soaring Wall Street-facing business lines.

Why it matters: Banks cashed in on the white-hot IPO market, record debt issuance, and sky-high trading volume — all of which played out as economic peril softened the consumer side of their businesses.

Updated 19 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden to attempt "emergency economic relief" by executive order

President Biden. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Biden will continue his executive action blitz on Friday, issuing two more orders in an attempt to provide immediate relief to struggling families without waiting for Congress.

Why it matters: In his second full day in office, Biden is again resorting to executive actions as he tries to increase payments for nutritional assistance and protect workers' rights during the pandemic.

31 mins ago - Economy & Business

What Biden's EV push could mean for jobs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden's swift effort to re-establish stricter fuel efficiency mandates, along with his broader push toward vehicle electrification, is as much about creating new jobs as it is protecting the environment.

Why it matters: The U.S. lags far behind the rest of the world in electric vehicle adoption. Catching up will require big investments in EV production — including battery cell manufacturing and mining of raw materials — to avoid dependence on imports and foreign supply chains.