Algorithmic Citizenship

Algorithmic Citizenship is a new form of citizenship, one where your citizenship, and therefore both your allegiances and your rights, are constantly being questioned, calculated, and rewritten.

Most people are assigned a citizenship at birth, in one of two ways. You may receive your citizenship from the place you're born, which is called jus soli, or the right of soil. If you're born in a place, that's where you're a citizen of. This is true in a lot of North and South America, for example - but not much of the rest of the world. You may get your citizenship based on where your parents are citizens of, which is called jus sanguinis, or the right of blood. Everybody is supposed to have a citizenship, although millions of stateless people do not, as a result of war, migration or the collapse of existing states. Many people also change citizenship over the course of their life, through various legal mechanisms. Some countries allow you to hold more than one citizenship at once, and some do not.

Having a citizenship means that you have a place in the world, an allegiance to a state. That state is supposed to guarantee you certain rights, like freedom from arrest, imprisonment, torture, or surveillance - depending on which state you belong to. Hannah Arendt famously said that "citizenship is the right to have rights". To tamper with ones citizenship is to endanger ones most fundamental rights. Without citizenship, we have no rights at all.

Algorithmic Citizenship is a form of citizenship which is not assigned at birth, or through complex legal documents, but through data. Like other computerised processes, it can happen at the speed of light, and it can happen over and over again, constantly revising and recalculating. It can split a single citizenship into an infinite number of sub-citizenships, and count and weight them over time to produce combinations of affiliations to different states.

Citizen Ex calculates your Algorithmic Citizenship based on where you go online. Every site you visit is counted as evidence of your affiliation to a particular place, and added to your constantly revised Algorithmic Citizenship. Because the internet is everywhere, you can go anywhere - but because the internet is real, this also has consequences.


What does Algorithmic Citizenship mean today?

Every time you go online, the data you generate is used to make decisions about you. Websites, social media, apps and governments gather data about you to decide how to treat you: what adverts or content to show you, and in what language or format to communicate with you. Algorithms looking at your data decide whether you get shown an advert for a pair of shoes or a foreign holiday; whether the homepage appears in English or Chinese; whether or not you're allowed to watch a YouTube video.

Sometimes it's possible to use this data to your own advantage. By using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), for example, its possible to send your data via another country, from where you can watch all the videos or download all the files you like. By doing this, you've effectively altered your Algorithmic Citizenship: it looks to the internet like you're in another place, so it treats you like you are. You've changed the rules which apply to you, because the law is different in different places, for people with different citizenships.

More often, your Algorithmic Citizenship is decided without you being aware of the decision, or the consequences. Government surveillance agencies like the NSA and GCHQ use your Algorithmic Citizenship to decide whether to spy on you. For example, the NSA is not allowed to spy on US citizens, so they use browsing data to assign a percentage score to everyone on the internet. If that score drops below 50% American, then they can record them: different laws apply to them, even if they don't know anything about them except how they behave online. This is also Algorithmic Citizenship.


What might Algorithmic Citizenship mean in the future?

Citizenship is one of the battlegrounds of the 21st Century, a century which will see increasing conflicts over territory and resources, as the previous consensus of nation states falls apart; people, jobs, labour and information become more mobile; and climate change causes ever greater stress on the environment, agriculture and industry. Where you are allowed to travel, work and live, already the most important questions for much of the world's population, will come to affect more and more of us.

At the same time, all of us are becoming more international, even post-national, because of the technology we use, and the ways those technologies, and our societies, are designed. Networks, corporations and social groups bridge nations and continents; we may feel more allegiance to, and kinship with, people in distant parts of the world than with our next door neighbours. In this we all resemble migrants, for whom citizenship has always been contested, provisional, and precarious.

Algorithmic Citizenship is both a potential threat and a possible solution to many of the issues that our allegiances and rights, guaranteed by traditional citizenship, face in the 21st Century. Used against us, it renders us effectively stateless and without protection, destabilising and destroying the legal protections which keep us from aggression, death, and invasions of all kinds. Properly accounted for, understood, and deployed in the service of citizens themselves, it may strengthen our ability to work and live together, to enact true democracies, and to protect the weak as well as the strong.


Further Reading

Want to know more about Algorithmic Citizenship and the nature of the internet?

The concept of Algorithmic Citizenship is based on the work of John Cheney-Lippold, first outlined in the paper "A New Algorithmic Identity". You can watch a conference talk on the topic on Youtube.

To understand the physical structure of the internet, we recommend Andrew Blum's book Tubes. Blum's book goes behind the scenes of the internet to explore cable landing sites, datacenters, and meet the people who build it.

For background on the political governance of the internet, Peter Yu's "The Neverending ccTLD Story" tells the story of how internet addresses connect to physical locations, and who decided their delegation.

For the most up-to-date reporting on online surveillance, watch Laura Poitras' film Citizenfour or visit The Intercept For more information on the history of signals intelligence, see Richard Aldrich's GCHQ and James Bamford's Body of Secrets.



Citizen Ex uses your web browsing to give you an Algorithmic Citizenship, but it is just one illustration of how this might be done. In order to protect your privacy it's also very simple, and a lot less than 100% accurate.

The extension attempts to work out where a website is based on its IP address. An IP address is a string of four digits (e.g. which is the digital form of an address like These IP addresses are registered in blocks, and do not always correspond to the location of an individual website. In addition, many websites are served via Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) which take the website's content, and serve it from another location to ensure reliability. Those CDNs might have many locations, but the IP address will only tell us where the CDN itself is located. This is true of many large websites, and so the locations the extension provides should be taken only as a guide. To look up the full details about a website's registered address, you can use a service like ICANN or The extension can't tell you any more than they can.

The extension uses the same process to work out your location. Every time you use the internet, you are given an address - another IP number. This doesn't necessarily point to your house, or even your city: it depends on how you access the internet, and will probably point to the registered location of your internet service provider. As with websites, the registered address is only a guide to the real location. Some websites may ask permission to use your real location, which can be determined by your computer from GPS and wifi signals. The extension does not do this. The way it sees you and the way it sees other websites is the way the internet sees you, every time you connect.