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Identity And The Technocrat Geeks

Like most rational men I still occasionally fall for the tricks of the mathematicks, but any maths you can invent today a child can do tomorrow. That is why maths per se doesn't provide the answer to the identity puzzle.

I have a broader view of the issues with identity, but I agree that we should be able to have different anonymous aliases, for instance in this blog, so I don't have to identify myself, unless perhaps if I am promoting my company. However, if I wish to express a personal opinion, why should that be available to government when my next tender goes in, or to anyone else for that matter? I might not wish to give away intellectual property, but I might like to teach, lead or perhaps influence.

I should be able to do it anonymously. If I lead someone 'astray' and cause harm, ie. break the law, perhaps it is a good idea if I can be held to account for my actions. By whom and when is the big question.

Perhaps if I write something negative albeit true about a nation or a leader, and that nation takes offense at my opinion, should I be handed up, to the likes of say Burma?

Anyone with enough intellect to come up with a practical solution to identity would probably consider some of the real issues which will determine the future of identity, and we need a 'global' one.

In the digital age, everything we write or post or if you use google phone then probably say, is recorded for posterity and for those in the future to use for whatever purpose they might decide. Not all those purposes will be noble. We therefore need the freeedom of anonymity to express ideas without fear of victimisation, but without any accountability we are all likley to be victims.

Identity is something we all need and we want it to work, and while some might have differing views on the technical issues, the moral issues are perfectly clear, if somewhat ignored.

Identity is a right. Identity exists at birth, without the birth certificate or any other right of passage, financial standing or social popularity. It is not something which can be given nor taken away according to the whims of whatever government or corporation has that moment of power. For it to work, it must also be palatable to everyone, or we will find ourselves living in very interesting times.

That is why geeks shouldn't be deciding it and why the googles shouldn't either - identity won't work as an ad supported model, nor should those who seek to own our identity. Identity has to be beyond the power of any single individual or entity in order to empower all individuals. It just happens to be capable of empowering a lot of corporate goals and make it easier for governments too, but only if it works.

Identity will only work if everyone is a winner.

The Titanic principle applies to most currently proposed ID schemes, it only takes a little iceberg and the ship is sunk. History teaches us that there will always be icebergs, so what should we learn from this? We don't all want to be losers and go down with the Titanic. Perhaps we would be safer from icebergs in our own little one person ID boats. It is much easier to replace your little boat, and at least you can cling to the side of a fellow in the event your ID is sunk, albeit temporarily. No use clinging to the other passengers on the Titanic.

At the very least we humans should be the most important part of the identity process, and without giving up our identity to biometrics or DNA or other non-renewable credentials. They can already clone me can't they? They haven't worked out how to get my DNA to the other end of the phone or the web yet, but anyone can send a picture of it, especially if I spend my life leaving them around - an insurmountable problem for biometrics.

The major technical challenge is to convince the financiers, geeks and marketers that they will still be able to know you, and perhaps better, but there will be a whole lot fewer tears if they don't always have to know everything about you, and exactly, who you are. Governments haven't much of a clue and corporations are generally motivated by a desire to own or control your identity. The current approaches to identity on the web for instance, fail to recognise the nature of the network and it's limitations or seek to alter or 'rebuild' the web to fit them. Forget it. Sure those smart guys are out there doing secure DNS and all sorts of other things, but the real solution isn't to change the web, it's to change the way we interact on it (and off). That change must be a change to something easier than the way we do it now.

Self-regulation won't cut it with identity.

If anyone can name a single government they'd trust enough to look after us all equally, I'd like to know their pharmacist. Failing that, and because it is unlikely everyone is going to suddenly start taking happy pills and wear some misguided technocratic solution being foisted upon them with no protections or privacy or real identity, then I think we'd be best to look for a global solution which is likely to be adopted as a matter of free choice.

ID also has to empower the corporations and governments to do their business better, but in order for citizens to willingly choose it, the successful identity system must be cheap, inclusive, safe and not able to be abused by corrupt individuals or corporations - nor by governments. Involuntary is never cheap.

Identity isn't a piece of paper or a plastic card, it is the sum total of who you are.

Not every interaction has any business in knowing the sum total of you and by default it should know nothing of you, unless it is your choice. It has to be an adult version of I'll show you mine if you show me yours - two way, only someone who is playing by the rules can participate. I think everyone can understand that in most cases full disclosure isn't necessary to interact. The fact that you are a child on a child's chat site should suffice, it doesn't mean an adult couldn't participate, however they could only do so as an adult.

Identity is a very complex issue already and probably doesn't need to be further complicated by the process, and certainly not one which makes it harder for everyone. I'd say the mobile has the best chance of satisfying that. Of course I have some ideas about exactly how, and I'm not in a desperate hurry, because I believe I have the 'end game' anyway. Decades of very bright minds have been pondering the issue in our labs and out in society. We didn't have an identity gadget we wanted to sell, we just wanted to be able to trust and be trusted and realised that everyone else did too.

Whatever the ID solution is, it will have to pass a lot of scrutiny, have it's rules set in stone and have glass windows for all to see, while still providing privacy, two way authentication and most importantly - accountability.

I focused on the identity issue because I needed it to work to empower my own ideas, and intend to be a great customer of whatever system works. I suspect that a third-party arms-length-to-everyone approach will prove most popular, and that the ultimate provider will do only that - provide the identity service.

I don't think it will be banks, sure they need identity to work too, but they also need electricity and they don't build their own personal power stations. As a bank shareholder I'd be wondering why I was expected to shoulder so much expense for such poor return. Stick to banking, participate, finance, invest, but realise your limitations.

Identity is never going to be a profit centre for every corporation and it won't be for yours. It is an essential service and will eventually be priced that way. Better to spend some time thinking about what the customer really wants and helping them get it, because banks will be better served when we are all better served with identity.

Governments from Bonn to Beijing to Buenos Aires are struggling with the concept and scouring the planet for a solution, but the answer is already likely in the palm of many of their citizen's hands. They need to get on with it and realise the cost-savings in every interaction, business and  public service will be revolutionary. Interactions will be better, outcomes will be better and they'll be able to afford to be fairer by ensuring that the right person pays or receives their dues.

The finish line isn't that far away. I'd like to thank all those efforts in the wrong direction, they have saved me a lot of explaining, as they scraped past their own icebergs and sank under, leaving the ideal course for identity perfectly clear.

Identity is universal and nobody needs it more than anyone else, we just need it to work for all of us and, done properly, identity will be a thoroughly liberating experience.


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19 Mar 2009


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