Ben Laurie blathering

Identity, Privacy, and Accountability

Bob Aman posted a response to my Laws of Identity. In short, his point is that if someone were to create a completely minimal and unlinkable identity, then no-one would trust them. This is an excellent point, and one I agree with totally – in fact I wrote a paper on privacy for the Security Protocols Workshop a couple of years ago which was all about what a terrible place a world where everyone was absolutely anonymous would be.

However, it doesn’t imply the opposite: that one should therefore abandon all minimality and unlinkablity in order to interact usefully on the ‘net. It seems to me that my laws are all about allowing people to choose what they reveal and when they reveal it; to create multiple personas and not have what one does reflect on the others. It seems to me that this is merely reflecting what people do in meatspace: your colleagues at work don’t need to know what you do in your bedroom, or what you had for dinner. Why should this be any different on the ‘net? It shouldn’t – but the way we’ve set it up means it is. A resourceful gatherer of data can correlate everything I do online. This is bad, not just because I’m a privacy nut, but because it actually affects peoples lives, and not in a positive way: studies have shown that if people believe they are being observed, then they tend to alter their behaviour to match what they think the observer wants to see. I want people to be able to do their thing without fear of consequences from bigots or The Man or even “ordinary people”. None of us are ordinary and the world will be a poorer place if we were made to be.


  1. Ahhh, cool. If that’s what you meant, then yup, we’re pretty much in complete agreement. There is of course, still the problem of what happens when two personas eventually get linked. Because if there is any uniquely identifying information, eventually those profiles will become linked.

    Personally, I find this to be terribly annoying, to be honest. I have very little interest in genuine privacy myself, but I tend to separate into two personas online, one for personal stuff, in the form of LiveJournal and the like, and one for interacting with the rest of the blogosphere at large. Thanks to old habits with which usernames I pick, links to on my LiveJournal page, and often using the same email address for accounts in different “persona spaces”, the lines between those two personas are constantly blurred.

    I wish I had a solution for that, but I don’t really. I’m slowly transitioning to a single “persona” as a way of pretty much just giving up. And my original reason for having multiple ones was exactly what you pointed out: fear of reprisal from the blogosphere for unpopular opinions. Fortunately, in the interim, I also decided that the opinion of the mob was irrelevant and could be safely ignored, but that’s certainly not going to be the case for everyone, and you’re right: a good way of dealing with that would be nice.

    But you know what? I have a feeling that the answer is realistically still going to be complete-anonymity-mode for any time you’re worried about what you say. Your words will carry less “oomph” as a result of their anonymity, but that’s an inevitable byproduct of the “cowardice” involved in being an “Anonymous Coward.” We’ll just have to deal with it, I guess.

    Idealism is a pain, because you know there’s a better way, and you know it’ll never happen.

    Comment by Bob Aman — 14 Dec 2005 @ 18:51

  2. Most vendors that participate in the Liberty Alliance are missing the point on federation. I have posted my own thoughts here:

    Comment by James — 15 Dec 2005 @ 13:44

  3. […] Ben Laurie: […]

    Pingback by Symphonious » Why Is Privacy Important? — 16 Dec 2005 @ 22:33

  4. Ben, I think you are missing the main issue here. The clue to online security is not anonymity but the ability to isolate a context. Within the context, you can achive convenience without adding substantially to linkability.

    “Freedom with accountability” means that it is ok to be accountable in a context, but not to have all contexts linked. It is a one-way street from context to person without the link from person to context.

    In other words, we need to break the illusion that privacy is about non-accountability. It is true in some instances such as the protection of certain rights of minorities. But not in the general term when it comes to commercial or government transactions.

    Comment by Stephan Engberg — 23 Dec 2005 @ 14:07

  5. […] In a comment on an earlier post Stephen Engberg says: Ben, I think you are missing the main issue here. The clue to online security is not anonymity but the ability to isolate a context. Within the context, you can achive convenience without adding substantially to linkability. […]

    Pingback by Links » Freedom with Accountability — 26 Dec 2005 @ 15:38

  6. Ben, can you provide links to the studies you mentioned? I’m prepared to accept they exist, but I’m actually interested enough to consider reading them as well.

    Comment by Simon Gibbs — 19 Mar 2006 @ 17:53

  7. I have not read the studies myself but they were referred to at PET (Privacy Enhancing Technologies) by several participants.

    Comment by Ben — 25 Mar 2006 @ 16:32

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