The Māori relationship between digital identity and collective identity

I live in the United States in a fairly industrialized society with a heavy focus on individual rights, and a (general) preference toward a focus on the brain and body rather than the soul.

This view shapes how I approach a number of topics, including biometrics and digital identity. For example, if my biometrics are encoded on a physical card or in some type of digital representation, I merely think of this as a way to individually identify myself from other individuals.

Frank Hersey of Biometric Update notes that my attitude is not universal. Hersey cites an article in New Zealand’s Gisborne Herald entitled “Maori experts call for closer involvement in creation of taonga.”

Yes, taonga. As you can see, the Maori people have their own language. (And their own views on the individual, society, and identity.) While there is no direct translation of “taonga” to English, the word has been described to mean a treasured possession.

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the ridges on the tips of my fingers, “treasured possession” is not the first thought that comes to mind.

And that’s the problem.

Maori data experts say there has been a lack of undertsanding about te ao Māori (Māori world view) and data sovereignty principles by the Government in the process of making two new data laws.


The Gisborne Herald quotes Dr. Warren Williams regarding how the two data laws (The Digital Identity Services Trust Framework and The Consumer Data Right) could affect the Maori.

Data is a taonga (treasured possession) for me. It is something to be cherished, protected and cared for. And with that comes responsibility….

Māori want to be able to protect our data. We want to have real ownership of our data. We want to understand where it has been stored.

Where there is physical storage of data, can we access that? Or those who hold our data, are they looking after it in a way that is respectful?

Sovereignty is not just ownership but also how it’s cared for, how it’s looked after, how it’s shared. If I say I give you permission to share data about myself to a certain group, sometimes the holder of that data can refuse because it’s private.


This data perspective is literally foreign to many government bureaucrats and policy advocates in North America, the European Union, and other more industrialized societies. Can you imagine someone in Brussels, Belgium or Springfield, Illinois talking about being “respectful” while “caring” for data?

So now let’s move to another Maori word, “tikanga,” which leads us to discuss a profound difference between Western individual perspectives and Maori collective perspectives. This was discussed in that great cultural publication Computerworld, in its description of the “Tikanga in Technology” project.

The project’s focus is on how tikanga Māori (customary protocols) and Mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) inform “the construction of digital identities and relational responsibilities to data.  … The world is undergoing disruptive change as rapid advances in data linkage and powerful digital technologies converge. For Indigenous peoples, these innovations are a double-edged sword, creating vast potential for improved well-being as well as major risks of group exploitation and harm. The current narrow focus on individual data rights and protection is failing us. We need a profoundly different approach—one that recognises collective identities and allows data to be understood through a wider set of ontological realities.”


Even in our society, identification is not a completely individualistic activity. One common example is how an individual’s DNA can be used to identify a relative who may have engaged in criminal activity, or who may have been a victim of an untimely death (criminal or otherwise). We as a society are struggling with the ramifications of this, and trying to balance the need to satisfy a public good with the need for privacy, including how I can inadvertently (or purposely) reveal something that may violate the privacy of another person.

Another example is when the needs of a biometric modality such as facial recognition are affected by religious or societal needs that cause people to shield that particular biometric. Religious mandates in certain groups to veil one’s face have recently been joined by medical mandates in certain groups to mask one’s face, causing uproars and changes in the biometric world.

Sometimes, the biometric rules adjust, such as Apple’s allowance to use a different identification method (such as something you know) when a face is obscured.

Sometimes, the biometric rules don’t adjust, and your local driver’s license bureau declares, “if you shield your face, you can’t get an identification card.”

The Maori are taking this concern with the collective (vs. the individual) a step further, with their concern about “group exploitation and harm.”

So how do these views of the collective impact people such as myself, who toss out phrases such as “identification of individuals” from decades of habit?

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