David Weinberger – lover of the status quo?

David Weinberger at Joho the Blog has a thoughtful piece on privacy and anonymity that more or less wraps up the ongoing thread between him, Eric Norlin, Ben Laurie and others including myself.

It's long and detailed, so I suggest you check it out at Joho (don't get distracted by his piece about Snakes on a Plane.) 

While I have the chance I'll mention that I really don't like the way David uses the phrase “real world” – and counterposes it to the Internet. 

But here's what I wanted to discuss:

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.

Economics will drive the social norms?  Why isn't it possible that social behavior will also drive our economics?  Is there a cluetrain?

An obvious example might be the ability to market more effectively without ANY personally identifying information about an indvidual.  This sounds counterintuitive until you take into account the fact that people are willing to reveal more about themselves – and their needs – when they are not individually identified.

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.

I'm not sure if fanatics is the right word. Once you see that privacy is security from the point of view of the individual, then it just becomes a normal part of security modelling. 

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.

Where is the proof for this?  Vendors will want to do whatever lets them sell most effectively.  Pseudonymous relationships, as I mentioned above, may well be perfect for this.  Amazon sells to me by knowing what I like to read and watch – not by knowing my name.  Next generation credit and delivery systems will allow us to purchase without revealing anything about who we are or where we live to the merchant. 

With an identity platform in place, a payment transaction can be a one-time transaction guaranteed by a bank.  No name or credit card number is necessary.

WIth an identity platform in place, delivery can be done by giving the merchant a one-time transaction number linked to my Fedex account – without the merchant needing to know where I live or take responsibility for product delivery.

Why would merchants want to keep all the liability of the material world if they can reduce their costs and increase their sales by moving on into the virtual one?  Doesn't that sound real? 

Does that matter? I think it does, for the political, social and person reasons mentioned above. Don't make me also argue against being on one's best behavior and against being accountable for everything one does! I'm willing to do it! I will pull this car over and do it! Just try me!

The basic problem is, in my opinion, that the digital ID crew is approaching this as a platform issue. Most places on the Web have solved the identity problem sufficiently for them to operate. Some ask for the three digits on the back of your credit card. Some only sign you up if you confirm an email. Some only let you on if you can convince an operator you know the name of your first pet and the senior year season record of your high school's football team. Sites come up with solutions as needed.

David, David, David.  You think the current situation is so good for your privacy?  You like the increasing proliferation of personally identifying information that characterises the current technology?  You're happy with the way enterprises and governments build their centralized systems?  They aren't.  Everyone realizes that our current ways of doing things are too dangerous – and much of that comes from the fact that we have been forced to store information we don't need precisely because there has been no identity platform.

Good. Local solutions to local problems are less likely to change norms and defaults. But the push is on for an identity management platform. It's one solution — federated, to be sure — that solves all identity problems at once. If you want to change a social default, build a platform. That's not why they're building it, but that will (I'm afraid) be the effect. It's not enough that anonymity be possible or permitted by the platform. The default isn't about what's permitted but about what's the norm. If the default changes to being naked at the beach, saying, “Well, you can cover up if you want to,” doesn't hide the fact that wearing a bathing suit now feels way different. Yes, there's something wrong – and distracting – about the particulars of this analogy. But I think the overall point is right: We're talking about defaults, not affordances.

There are serious problems caused by weaknesses in current identity solutions. Identity theft is nothing to sneer at, for example. But are we sure we want to institute a curfew instead of installing better locks?

Is it better to have been born, or not to have been born? (Yes, I know what the ancients said.) 

There are dangers – do we therefore have to submit to a long sleep?

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

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