My friend Alec Muffett thinks we should do away with “Big I” Identity. I’m all for that … but Alec seems to be quite confused.
Firstly, his central point, that all modern electronic identity requires the involvement of third parties, is just plain wrong. OpenID, which he doesn’t mention, is all about self-asserted identity – I put stuff on webpages I own and that’s my identity. Cardspace, to the extent it is used at all, is mostly used with self-signed certificates – I issue a new one for each site I want to log in to, and each time I visit that site I prove again that I own the corresponding private key. And, indeed, this is a pretty general theme through the “user-centric” identity community.
Secondly, the idea that you can get away with no third party involvement is just unrealistic. If everyone were honest, then sure, why go beyond self-assertion? But everyone is not. How do we deal with bad actors? Alec starts off down that path himself, with his motorcycling example: obviously conducting a driving test on the spot does not scale well – when I took my test, it took around 40 minutes to cover all the aspects considered necessary to establish sufficient skill, and I’d hesitate to argue that it could be reduced. The test used to be much shorter, and the price we paid was a very high death rate amongst young motorcyclists; stronger rules have made a big inroads on that statistic. It is not realistic to expect either me or the police to spend 40 minutes establishing my competence every time it comes into question. Alec appears to be recognising this problem by suggesting that the officer might instead rely on the word of my local bike club. But this has two problems, firstly I am now relying on a third party (the club) to certify me, which is exactly counter to Alec’s stated desires, and secondly, how does one deal with clubs whose only purpose is to certify people who actually should not be allowed to drive (because they’re incompetent or dangerous, for example)?
The usual answer one will get at this point from those who have not worked their way through the issues yet is “aha, but we don’t need a central authority to fix this problem, instead we can rely on some kind of reputation system”. The trouble is no-one has figured out how you build a reputation system in cyberspace (and perhaps in meatspace, too) that is not easily subverted by people creating networks of “fake” identities purely in order to boost their own reputations – at least, not without some kind of central authority attesting to identity.
Yet another issue that has to be faced is what to do about negative attributes (e.g. “this guy is a bad risk, don’t lend him money because he never pays it back”). No-one is going to willingly make those available to others. Once more, we end up having to invoke some kind of authority.
Of course, there are many cases where self-assertion is perfectly fine, so I have no argument with Alec there. And yes, there is a school of thought that says any involvement with self-issued stuff is a ridiculous idea, but you mostly run into that amongst policy people, who like to think that we’re all too stupid to look after ourselves, and corporate types who love silos (we find a lot of those in the Liberty Alliance and the ITU and such-like places, in my experience).
But the bottom line is that a) what he wants is insufficient to completely deal with the problems of identity and reputation and b) it is nothing that plenty of us haven’t been saying (and doing) all along – at least where it works.
Once you’ve figured that out, you realise how wrong
I am also here not going to get into the weirdness of Identity wherein the goal is to centralise your personal information to make management of it convenient, and then expend phenomenal amounts of brainpower implementing limited-disclosure mechanisms and other mathematica, in order to re-constrain the amount of information that is shared; e.g. â€œprove you are old enough to buy booze without disclosing how old you areâ€. Why consolidate the information in the first place, if itâ€™s gonna be more work to keep it secret henceforth? Itâ€™s enough to drive you round the twist, but itâ€™ll have to wait for a separate rant.
is. Consolidation is not what makes it necessary to use selective disclosure – that is driven by the need for the involvement of third parties. Obviously I can consolidate self-asserted attributes without any need for selective disclosure – if I want to prove something new or less revealing, I just create a new attribute. Whether its stored “centrally” (what alternative does Alec envision, I wonder?) or not is entirely orthogonal to the question.
Incidentally, the wit that said â€œSomething you had, Something you forgot, Something you wereâ€ was the marvellous Nick Mathewson, one of the guys behind the Tor project. Also, Alec, if you think identity theft is fraud (as I do), then I recommend not using the misleading term preferred by those who want to shift blame, and call it “identity fraud” – in fraud, the victim is the person who believes the impersonator, not the person impersonated. Of course the banks would very much like you to believe that identity fraud is your problem, but it is not: it is theirs.