Cosette from Les Miserables

The Miserable Society and the Identity System: The Dangers of Data Linking as Seen in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (2024 EU Version)


Recently 1, keywords like “European Digital Identity Framework” and “Architecture and Reference Framework” have been buzzing in the public discourse. Some companies see this as an opportunity for their business, claiming that the introduction of these systems will create a permanent annual demand of sizable Euros.

The introduction of “identification systems” is an excellent idea in general, slated to increase administrative efficiency by assigning legal digital identities to people and providing necessary assistance to those in need. From what I’ve observed, there is a strong preference for some flavours of “unlinkability”, coupled with suitable selective disclosure mechanisms limiting the data that can be used as keys for data linking. However, if we fill in the details carefully, it may end up with the same effect as assigning “visible, inter-temporal, and universal identifiers” to individuals.

While I am not against the introduction of a mechanism that enable me to establish the inter-temporal as well as inter-sector linking, I believe they should be strictly controllable. Identifiers should also be modifiable if necessary to prevent privacy violations due to data linking.

However, it seems that the discussion on the data linking seems to be skewed towards the data linking by the credential issuers and other types of linking are not fully appreciated.

This problem of data linking is not confined to “identification systems” alone. It is a common concern even with certain types of “identifiers” and “addresses” we use in our daily lives.

I’ve already detailed the information model-based explanation starting from “What is privacy?” in the materials for the Horie Symposium on December 19, 2010. Here, I would like to discuss this issue in a more intuitive way.

Firstly, not all data linking constitutes a privacy violation. The problem lies in “data linking that individuals do not want (unintentional linking).”

This “data linking that individuals do not want,” while often unnoticed, is actually one of the central themes in literature, starting with Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”

Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert

“Les Misérables” has two main protagonists: “Jean Valjean” and “Inspector Javert.”

Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread out of hunger in his youth, is redeemed after experiencing the forgiveness and love of a priest upon his release. Despite becoming a saint-like figure, he is repeatedly linked to his past crimes by Javert and thrown into despair. This absurdity, this miserableness, is one of the themes of this epic novel.

Javert, on the other hand, is a superhuman figure with an exceptional sense of justice and ability. Let’s examine his extraordinary capabilities.

  • He never forgets, even after decades.
  • He possesses superhuman investigative abilities.
  • Humans are creatures of forgetfulness. Javert, however, never forgets.

Humans do not usually possess the ability to search for information across time and space, connecting two seemingly unrelated things. Only individuals like Sherlock Holmes or some superhuman beings possess this ability. Javert is one of them.

With these two superhuman abilities, Javert repeatedly throws Jean Valjean into despair, driven by “justice according to the law.” Despite serving society, saving people, and performing seemingly saintly deeds, he relentlessly “matches” Jean Valjean’s identities, despite him living under different names, driving him into despair. This not only causes misery to him but also to those around him, potentially affecting an entire region.

Yes, what is happening here is the “data linking” of “Jean Valjean” with “Mayor Madeleine,” or “Jean Valjean” with “Monsieur Fauchelevent,” facilitated by Javert’s “unforgettable ability” and “investigative abilities.”

Now, astute readers will have already noticed. This superhuman ability of Inspector Javert,

  • He never forgets, even after decades.
  • He possesses superhuman investigative abilities.
    is, in fact, the very essence of the internet. Information once published online is rarely completely deleted, as it gets copied numerous times. And internet search engines like Google enable the retrieval of this information within a very short time. In other words, the internet has bestowed upon ordinary people, willingly or unwillingly, an “extraordinary ability” surpassing even Javert. Let’s add to this:
  • The distribution and use of “visible, unchanging, universal identifiers.”
    This makes it incredibly easy to match “past me” with “present me,” “work me” with “private me,” and so on. It is, in essence, the completion of a plan to make everyone a Javert.

Humans are creatures of forgetfulness. This leads to forgiveness. People act on this premise. But the internet doesn’t forget. To call a person who remembers like Javert in “Les Misérables” merciless, and to call the resulting damage miserable, is an apt description. The reckless introduction and use of identifiers, represented by “universal unchanging identifiers,” on the internet makes everyone a Javert. What emerges in its wake is a “miserable society.”

The Threat of Fragmented Information

Now, let’s introduce another major character: Marius, who marries Cosette, Jean Valjean’s “daughter.” After Marius and Cosette marry, Jean Valjean reveals that he is not Cosette’s real father, but her foster father, and that he is a former convict. As a result, Marius abandons him. He starts to investigate the source of Cosette’s dowry, doubting its legitimacy. Of course, he only has fragmented information. But by piecing it together, he arrives at a “truth.” Here’s what it looked like:

The fortune belonged to Mayor Madeleine, a man who had committed petty crimes in the past but reformed, achieved great business success, built a hospital, established a school, visited the sick, adopted orphans, and became a guardian angel for the region, even becoming mayor.

However, Jean Valjean knew about Madeleine’s past misdeeds and exposed him, leading to his arrest. Taking advantage of this arrest, he took more than 500,000 francs from Madeleine. He had heard this from a banker directly, so it must be true.

Furthermore, driven by a personal grudge, Jean Valjean killed Inspector Javert with a pistol. He had heard the gunshot himself, so it must be true.

Of course, the truth is different. Since Madeleine is Jean Valjean, Jean Valjean did not steal Madeleine’s fortune, and Inspector Javert was about to be killed but was saved by Jean Valjean’s quick thinking. However, Marius’ fragmented “facts” lead to a conclusion completely different from the truth.

Again, astute readers will have already noticed. The appearance of fragmented “facts” during investigation is also a characteristic of the internet. The truth is the sum of all facts, and selectively extracting parts often leads to something far removed from the truth. The internet constantly carries this danger.

In “Les Misérables,” these “mistakes” are revealed by Thénardier, who comes to accuse Jean Valjean of murdering a young, wealthy man. Furthermore, it turns out that the “murdered young man” is Marius himself, and Jean Valjean had rescued him at great risk. This is completely confirmed when the jacket Marius had kept and the piece of cloth Thénardier presented as murder evidence matches. At this point, Jean Valjean finally regains his honour. Marius, taking Cosette with him, rushes in a carriage to Jean Valjean. But Jean Valjean, disheartened at the prospect of not seeing Cosette again, tragically passes away.

Supreme Shadow, Supreme Dawn2

What this suggests is now clear. The story, being a story, coincidentally has a messenger of truth appear in the guise of Thénardier, a disguised devil, bringing about dawn. But in reality, we cannot expect such convenient outcomes.

Therefore, to prevent the birth of a miserable society, we must equip ourselves with the means to reveal all the facts as needed and restore honour. The current internet lacks this capability.

Such means of restoring honour and mechanisms to mitigate the damage caused by data linking cannot be achieved solely through technological means. Nor can they be achieved solely through institutional measures or social means through education. Only by combining technology, institutions, and education in a balanced way can we achieve this. Only then can we have an environment where everyone can use the internet safely and conveniently.

This year, EU has introduced the Digital Identity Framework. I fervently hope these systems will bring us dawn by balancing technological, institutional, and educational measures.


  1. This article is an adoptation of the original post on January 1, 2011: Sakimura, N. (2011). 無情社会と番号制度~ビクトル・ユーゴー「ああ無情」に見る名寄せの危険性. 技術評論社.that was for the Japanese situation in 2010 to the EU in 2024.
  2. this is the title of the final chapter of Les Miserables

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