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100,000 years of identity verification: an infographic history

History of identity verification
History of identity verification

Identity verification has been around for thousands of years. It can be as simple as remembering your friend’s face and picking them out from a crowd or as complex as verifying a stranger’s identity based on the blood vessel patterns on the back of their hands. This timeline and infographic illustrate how far we’ve come in the evolution of identity verification.

In the beginning, the most common method was to rely on one’s memory to identify the various features and physical details of another person. However, while simple, this method did have its failings due to human error. Thus, new identification methods were born.


One alternative was the physical display of jewelry or other decorative goods. The oldest pieces of jewelry found for identity purposes were beads that were discovered in South Africa, Algeria and Israel. The oldest date back approximately 100,000 years ago. In terms of identification, these beads communicated a variety of information to others, including wealth, familial ties and personal identity. Even now, jewelry is still being used in the military in the form of dog tags, and for medical purposes as medical alert bracelets to help identify and classify individuals.


Another historic alternative to memory was tattooing. The earliest tattoos identified in ancient Europe and Egypt appear to have had a therapeutic purpose. But other societies such as the Maori of New Zealand developed elaborate visible tattoos that communicated a person’s status, ancestry and membership in a particular group.

Government census and documents

With advances in the written language and record-keeping technologies, identification evolved from physical symbols and skin markings to the written word. The earliest mention of a census or a government collecting citizens’ personal information dates to 3800 BC during the Babylonian empire, where records state a census was undertaken every six to seven years and contained detailed counts of both people and resources. Unfortunately, the Babylonians had yet to discover the usefulness of numbers and so were forced to rely on manual identification techniques.

As time progressed, the Roman Empire developed more data collection techniques and needed more personalized information from citizens, so a variety of documents were introduced. These included many that are still common today, such as birth certificates, land title deeds and citizenship records.

As for passports, the credit for their invention can go to King Henry V of England in 1414, when he created the documents for English citizens who needed to prove their identity while in foreign countries. These papers were then referred to as “safe conduct” documents and ensured a citizen’s safety in a neighboring country when gifted by the monarch.

Personal identification numbers

In 1829, the British Parliament enacted the reforms of Robert Peel to place more emphasis on printed police records. Due to this new focus, data could be stored in a personal document file and linked back to individuals using a unique numerical value. This would be the precursor to more modern government databases that link to ID cards.

Building on Robert Peel’s reforms, the Netherlands started their own decentralized Personal Number (PN) system in 1849, but only moved on to issue personal ID cards to each citizen in 1940. By this time, the United States had also begun rolling out their Social Security number cards, the first batch distributed in 1936. Other countries followed suit as electronic data processing continued to permeate countries and governments around the world.


In 1840, William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered the negative-positive photographic system. This invention revolutionized the identification industry, although it was not until after WWII that photo IDs became widespread.


In 1858, Sir William Herschel made a biometric breakthrough. He successfully implemented ink fingerprints as manual signatures on wills and deeds, making it a means of precise identification. This practice evolved into Scotland Yard’s Galton-Henry system of fingerprint classification and would later be automated by the Japanese in the 1980s with their Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and further improved by the Americans with their Integrated AFIS.

Digital records

However, these records were still mainly in paper form. It wasn’t until 1977 that the U.S. computerized its paper records and established a matching program capable of cross-referencing between various banking and governmental bodies. This practice eventually became commonplace, and citizens were more easily monitored to determine if they were being taxed appropriately or if they had received welfare funds.

This digitization paved the way for what many would now recognize as smart cards, which were first popularized by government usage as national identity cards. Among the first countries to use smart identity cards include Germany, Singapore, the Czech Republic and Spain beginning in the late 1980s. The aim of these cards was to amalgamate a number of necessary public services into one place, including citizenship, health care and finances. The card contained a variety of information ranging from date of birth and digital signatures to biometric data such as fingerprints.

Advanced biometrics

Biometric data took a huge leap when companies and governments began using new methods to identify people. In 2004, the U.S. deployed its first statewide automated palm print databases. These databases were primarily used by law enforcement to match unidentified palm prints to the list of known offenders.

In addition to this technology, other improvements in the area of biometrics include advancements in speech recognition, iris recognition, facial recognition, DNA sequencing, hand geometry, and vascular pattern recognition, which relies on blood vessel patterns in the hands.

In 2010, the world’s largest biometric digital ID system debuted in India. The Aadhaar system captures people’s fingerprints and/or iris scans and assigns a unique 12-digit Aadhaar number. As of 2019, almost 1.2 billion people have voluntarily enrolled in the program, which is intended to simplify and speed up verification for government programs while also reducing fraud.

Biometric verification hit the consumer market in 2013 when Apple included a fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S. Other smartphone manufacturers have followed suit. Apple Touch ID was later supplemented with Face ID in the iPhone X in 2017. These technologies provide reasonably good security measures without relying on troublesome passwords. As the cost for this type of security continues to drop, biometrics are destined to become standard across mobile devices.

Global electronic verification

Due to the spread of eCommerce and the steady rise in online fraud, identity verification has increasingly become a legislated requirement. Know Your Customer (KYC) comprises different policies enacted in order to identify customers, helping to prevent fraud. Anti-Money Laundering (AML) describes the legal controls that financial and legal organizations must enact with due diligence to prevent, detect and report money laundering activities.

Trulioo recognized that the direction of global identity verification was undeniably headed towards a layered approach of online verification methods, combining numerous data sources to provide global AML compliance and risk mitigation services. As a result, Trulioo launched GlobalGateway in 2014, the most comprehensive international AML/KYC identity verification provider.

GlobalGateway continues to expand the variety of data sources, both in terms of the geographical reach and the type of data. GlobalGateway now provides instant electronic identity and business verification coverage for 5 billion people and 250 million companies worldwide.

“Identity is the history that has gone into bone and blood and reshaped the flesh. Identity is not what we were but what we have become, what we are at this moment.” ― Nick Joaquín

This post was originally published on August 7, 2014.

Identity verification has been around for thousands of years. It can be as simple as remembering your friend’s face and picking them out from a crowd or as complex as verifying a stranger’s identity based on the blood vessel patterns on the back of their hands. This timeline and infographic illustrate how far we’ve come in the evolution of identity verification.