It seems everyone now agrees that Internet identity is about a collection of assertions relating to a person (or thing, if you want to go there). Some of these assertions are assertions one makes about oneself, for example “I like brussels sprouts”, and assertions others make about you, for instance “Ben is a UK citizen, signed the UK Government”. These assertions are essentially invariant, or slowly varying, for the most part. So what makes an identity, we agree, is some collection of these assertions.
But we also agree that people need to assert different identities: there’s Ben at work, Ben as a member of the OpenSSL team, Ben at home and so on. Each of these identities, we like to think, corresponds to a different collection of assertions.
All we need to do, we think, to map these identities onto collections of electronic assertions and we’ll have solved The Internet Identity Problem. People will no longer be required to type in their credit card number five times a day, endlessly write down their address (and correct it when it changes) and so on. The ‘net will become one lovely, seamless experience of auto-communicated factoids about me that are just right for every circumstance and I’ll never fill in a form again.
You can probably see where I’m going. The more I think about it, the more I realise that every situation is different. My “identity” is contextual, and different for each context. We know this from endless studies of human behaviour.
So, what was the point of doing what every electronic identity system wants me to do, namely aggregating various assertions about me into various identities, and then choosing the right identity to reveal? To match this to what I do in the real world, I will need a different identity for each context.
So, what was the point of even talking about identities? Why not simply talk about assertions, and find better ways for me to quickly make the assertions I want to make. Cut out the middleman and do away with the notion of identity.
In practice, of course, this is exactly what has happened. The only vestige of this electronic identity that makes any sense is the ability to log in as some particular “person”. After that all my decisions are entirely contextual, and “identity” doesn’t help me at all. And so what we see is that “identity” has simply become “login”. And will always be so.
In a sense this is exactly what my Belay research project is all about – allowing me to decide exactly what I reveal in each individual context. In Belay, the ability to log in to a particular site will become the same kind of thing as any other assertion – a fine-grained permission I can grant or not grant.
Note: I am not against bundles of assertions – for example, I think lines one and two of my address clearly belong together (though for some purposes the first half of my postcode, or just my country, should suffice) or, less facetiously, when I use my credit card I almost always need to send a bunch of other stuff along with the credit card number. What I doubt is that the notion of a bundle that corresponds to an “identity” is a useful one. This implies that UIs where you pick “an identity” are doomed to failure – some other approach is needed.