Internet as extension of mind

Ryan Janssen at  published an interview recently that led me to think back over the various phases of my work on identity.  I generally fear boring people with the details, but Ryan explored some things that are very important to me, and I appreciate it. 

After talking about some of the identity problems of the enterprise, he puts forward a description of metadirectory that I found interesting because it starts from current concepts like claims rather than the vocabulary of X.500: 

…. Kim and the ZOOMIT team came up with the concept of a “metadirectory”. Metadirectory software essentially tries to find correlation handles (like a name or email) across the many heterogeneous software environments in an enterprise, so network admins can determine who has access to what. Once this is done, it then takes the heterogeneous claims and transforms them into a kind of claim the metadirectory can understand. The network admin can then use the metadirectory to assign and remove access from a single place. 

Zoomit released their commercial metadirectory software (called “VIA”) in 1996 and proceeded to clean the clock of larger competitors like IBM for the next few years until Microsoft acquired the company in the summer of 1999. Now anyone who is currently involved in the modern identity movement and the issues of “data portability” that surround it has to be feeling a sense of deja vu because these are EXACTLY the same problems that we are now trying to solve on the internet—only THIS time we are trying to take control of our OWN claims that are spread across innumerable heterogeneous systems that have no way to communicate with each other. Kim’s been working on this problem for SIXTEEN years—take note!

Yikes.  Time flies when you're having fun.

When I asked Kim what his single biggest realization about Identity in the 16 years since he started working on it was, he was slow to answer, but definitive when he did—privacy. You see, Kim is a philosopher as well as a technologist. He sees information technology (and the Internet in particular) as a social extension of the human mind. He also understands that the decisions we make as technologists have unintended as well as intended consequences. Now creating technology that enables a network administrator to understand who we are across all of a company’s systems is one thing, but creating technology that allows someone to understand who we are across the internet, particularly as more and more of who we are as humans is stored there, and particularly if that someone isn’t US or someone we WANT to have that complete view, is an entirely other problem.

Kim has consistently been one the strongest advocates for obscuring ANY correlation handles that would allow ANY Identity Provider or Relying Party to have a more complete view of us than we explicitly give them. Some have criticized his concerns as overly cautious in a world where “privacy is dead”. When you think of your virtual self as an extension of your personal self though, and you realize that the line between the two is becoming increasingly obscured, you realize that if we lose privacy on the internet, we, in a very real sense, lose something that is essentially human. I’m not talking about the ability to hide our pasts or to pretend to be something we’re not (though we certainly will lose that). What we lose is that private space that makes each of us unique. It’s the space where we create. It’s the space that continues to ensure that we don’t all collapse into one.

Yes, it is the space on which and through which Civilization has been built.

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.