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Identity management in an unequal world

When talking with Brad Templeton at Supernova, he put perfectly the misgivings about even the best of the digital ID systems that I’ve been trying to express for years. In The Paradox of Identity Management, Brad says, “If you make something easy to do, it will be done more often.” Thus:

The easier it is to give somebody ID information, the more often it will be done. And the easier it is to give ID information, the more palatable it is to ask for, or demand it.

Because it’s easier, more merchants will ask it of us. We will thus give away more and more personal information.

Brad goes on to connect this with fears about how this technology might be (= will be) used by tyrannies.

I continue to believe that we are best off addressing the identity problems locally, at the edges, rather than by putting in place a new layer or infrastructure. Let sites continue to design their own solutions to their own problems. If the credit card companies need stronger authentication, then let them handle it. If you want single sign-in, then get yourself a password manager like RoboForm. There are just too many unintended consequences of monkeying with something as basic as identity. And we should be especially concerned that the demand for identity management is coming mainly top down, not bottom up.


Doc responds to Brad. Doc hopes that VRM (vendor relationship management) can overcome the “market power asymmetries” that are at the heart of Brad’s (and my) concerns. Doc writes:

In a VRM system, IDM (identity management) provides (perhaps even defaults) to the choice not to provide data the customer would rather keep private, including names, addresses and every other piece of information not required to do business at hand. And let’s face it, in many (if not most) retail transactions there is no reason to give the vendor anything more than our money.

First, I’m surprised that defaulting to keeping info private merits only a “perhaps even.” I think this may have been a slip o’ the pen on Doc’s part.

Even so, Doc is ignoring the existing asymmetry. If Amazon is your favorite place to buy books, if Amazon requires more info than you think you want to give, you may be willing to pay the price. If it asks for personal info in order to “improve your shopping experience,” you may give it even if you don’t see its relevance. And if every bookstore on the Web decides it wants to ask for more info than it did before, you will start to take that as the norm. I believe that’s a predictable result — as per Brad’s paradox — of making it easy to give out personal information.

In fact, it seems to be a requirement for VRM to succeed. As Doc concludes: “VRM cannot succeed unless it overcomes Brad’s Paradox. If it makes that jump, it will bring IDM systems along for the ride.” But, since VRM is all about letting vendors know more about your preferences and intentions, it really doesn’t overcome the paradox. It depends on making it easier to give out personal info so that it can be done more often.

Doc makes the case for the benefits of keeping vendors well-informed. It would mean, for example, that we aren’t subjected to pointless, annoying ads for stuff we wouldn’t want anyway. And I may well be willing to trade my biography for that. (Of course, I would also want to be able to control how much sharing a merchant does of the information I’ve entrusted with it.)

I am more concerned about the effect of Brad’s paradox on social and political forums where anonymity is currently, and thankfully, the default.


Here‘s the much less elegant and clear way I put it just about a year ago when arguing for keeping anonymity as the default:

My fear is that we are in the process of building a new platform for identity in order to address some specific problems. We will create a system that, like packaged software, has defaults built in. The most important defaults in this case will not be the ones explicitly built into the system by the software designers. The most important defaults will be set by the contingencies of an economic marketplace that does not particularly value anonymity, privacy, dissent, social role playing, the exploration of what one is ashamed of, and the pure delight of wearing masks in public. Economics will drive the social norms away from the social values emerging. That is my fear.

I have confidence that the people designing these systems are going to create the right software defaults. The people I know firsthand in this are privacy fanatics and insistent that individuals be in control of their data. This is a huge and welcome shift from where digital ID was headed just a few years ago. We all ought to sigh in relief that these folks are on the job.

But, once these systems are in place, vendors of every sort will of course require strong ID from us. If I want to buy from, say, Amazon, they are likely to require me to register with some ID system and authenticate myself to them…far more strongly and securely than I do when I pay with a credit card in my local bookstore. Of course, I don’t have to shop at Amazon. But why won’t B&N make the same demand? And Powells? And then will come the blogs that demand I join an ID system in order to leave a comment. How long before I say, “Oh, to hell with it,” and give in? And then I’ve flipped my default. Rather than being relatively anonymous, I will assume I’m relatively identified.

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12 Responses to “Identity management in an unequal world”

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  2. You say “VRM is all about letting vendors know more about your preferences and intentions”. That’s wrong. VRM is about providing customer with both independence from vendors and more useful ways of engaging with vendors.

    I love keeping anonymity as a default. The only problem with that is only that it’s never been tried. That’s because all identity systems until recently have been provided by vendors and other organizations (including government bodies) on the supply side.

    Your case and Brad’s are both premised on the persistence of asymmetrical market power favoring the supply side. This is understandable and justifiable, because ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution, “developed” societies have never known anything else.

    What VRM seeks to do is equip the demand side with more independence, freedom and choice in the ways it relates to the supply side. This is not the same as “making it easier to give somebody ID information”, as Brad says. Nor is it a framework within which powerful vendors like Amazon will “require strong ID from us”, as you suggest in that earier posting.

    For what it’s worth (and I think it’s a lot), VRM is not about identification. It’s about relating. Focusing on identification alone indeed exposes us to exactly the risks that concern you, Brad and many others, including myself. Focusing on relating helps us overcome exactly those risks.

    We need to relate on terms other than those provided by vendors, which have been created almost entirely for their benefit and convenience. One of the terms that we need to provide, on our side, as a condition of relating with vendors, is defaulted anonymity.

    Maybe it won’t work. But I’d like to try.

  3. Identity needn’t correspond to a person. And each person may have multiple identities varying in the extent to which they reveal human association.

    However, I think some keys can be found in the VRM acronym:

    V=Potency, ability to buy that which could be vended
    R=Interrelationships and reputation
    M=Making it all happen, making it possible, making it manageable.

    An identity without the potential to be a vendor or a customer, is not an identity that vendors or customers are interested in.

    Moreover, I think it’s important to break away from the ‘them and us’ polarisation between customers and vendors. It may be cute to reverse the roles, but it’s more powerful to include the reversal rather than to pretend it as usurper.

    We are all equal participants in a marketplace, interested in making equitable exchanges involving any number of interested parties, and any manner of goods or monies.

    There are no customers. There are no vendors. We are all traders.

  4. Doc and Crosbie, I of course want to be where you want to take us. The problem is getting from here to there. Creating an ID _platform_ hands vendors (and repressive gov’ts) a tool that I think, predictably, they will abuse because it’s so much in their _currently-perceived_ interest to do so.

    We shouldn’t have an identity platform. We should have better and better local identity/authentication solutions.

  5. I’ve often felt that the solution to VRM may be consumer groups or proxies (like Consumer Reports or AAA) who can negotiate things on behalf of their members. Particularly otherwise non-negotiable contracts, such as clickwrap EULAs or the “sign this giant contract” documents you get to rent a car.

    I’m afraid it’s not true that there are only traders. Much of the law is being replaced by these non-negotiated contracts, and computers are making it easier than ever to demand agreement to such contracts.

    Ideally these contracts will demand not just more standard material terms, but also serious protection for the privacy of members. Of course, the requirement that members prove their membership makes privacy protection harder, but they need not prove it. The contract can say, “If you are a member, check the box and the member contract applies to you. If it turns out you weren’t a member, you agree to the standard non-negotiated contract.”

  6. Crude, centralised identity systems/platforms are the ones you fear.

    I’m talking about identities that represent themselves – not necessarily humans, dogs, computers, or inanimate proxies.

    I’m also talking about identity systems that have no achilles heel of a central database (whether in Vanuatu or anywhere else) or a black-box PKI that can be picked off piecemeal.

    An identity needn’t be associated with a human being to have a reputation, nor to have the means to make transactions.

    When you say ‘local identity’ solutions, you are probably not too far off the less vulnerable approach of ‘distributed identity systems’.

    How do humans manage identity off-line?

    Understanding how humans do if off-line, is the clue as to how abstract entities do it online.

    Even so, there are big hurdles in terms of paradigm shift before we should start worrying about the technical hurdles of implementation. I’ll be happy when we can readily treat identities independently of any consideration as to whether they’re bound to a being.

  7. Brad, what you appear to be able to get away with in the physical world is one thing. What you can actually get away with is another matter.

    When I say there are only traders, I’m talking about pure online identities. I’m not talking about punters signing their souls away in a retail environment.

    The repercussions for a pure online identity breaking the terms of the contracts it agrees to are to its reputation, not the physical consequences of a jail term for the human body that controls it (if a human does indeed control it).

    And yes, of course, things such as EULAs, patent, copyright, and DMCA, are abominations that have no place in a digital marketplace.

  8. First, none of the ID systems out there is a “platform”. Or (as Kim Cameron has put it) “an identity layer” for the Net. It’s not for users to “hand over” anything. And it will certainly fail if it’s a better tool for vendor-side venality than for individual freedom.

    If I’m not mistaken, “better and better local identity/authentication solutions” is exactly what many in the user-centric identity development communities are working on. Or one of the things, anyway.

  9. first off, I am me, and I posted the first post, but it is not me, nor was it about, from, nor especially moving to, me. So, who am I? I am not I am who am, am I, so why fret so much about who we are? Just be, or, as the older existential psychoanalysts used to almost say: Design.

  10. Doc, by “local,” I mean pretty much what we have now. Amazon has one type of identity system that suits its needs and Movable Type has another.

    What is being proposed and developed by the identity folks — people with whom I generally share viewpoints and for whom I have the greatest respect — has no value if only one vendor (or other) site uses it; it has the most value if everyone uses it. It thus is aiming at becoming functionally a layer. From my pov, an identity protocol that succeeds — that becomes near ubiquitous — is functionally an altering of the center of the Big Zero.

    Doc, on what do you base your confidence that if it works better for vendor venality than for individual freedom, it will fail? That assumes an untilted playing field. I do not believe that vendors always fail at gaining advantage over customers, and I’m worried that in this case we’re handing them the keys to the car they will drive right over us.

    There is customer demand for VRM (although customers don’t call it that…yet). I see very little customer demand for the ID system that enables VRM to go forward. I am concerned that we’ll get the ID system way before we get VRM.

  11. From what I can tell, VRM is a lot like any other social network: You get to dictate who gets what amount of access to your info, and for how long. Just like in orkut/friendster/etc, it’s about being able to manage others’ access to your info.

    FWIW, I think a p2p social network that uses openID as authentication for access to a standardized subtree (API) of personal information – from vcards to calendaring to pictures – would get most of what you guys are looking for on the demand side. Supply side, it’s going to take a vendor wiring up the use of that API to avoid the laborious ‘please enter your name/email/shipping address’ forms for it to get traction. But I suspect that wouldn’t be hard to pull off if said p2p social network had much buy-in at all.

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