Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


What Would One Actually Do With A Persona?

I asked Bob Blakley and Mike Neuenschwander some questions about Limited Liability Personae. Rather than focusing on the implementation, I wanted to talk about the high level purposes, as well as concerns that most people have with the idea of a persona. Whenever I discuss personae, there are issues that frequently come up, for example:

Mordaxus: What do you have to hide? That’s the obnoxious way to ask why one needs a persona. What problem does a persona solve? Is there another way to do this?

Bob Blakley: It has nothing fundamentally with “hiding”. It has to do with compartmentalizing risk.

There’s no good reason getting my social security number stolen should result in my bank account getting cleaned out and my credit record being polluted. This only happens because I have to “invest” my bank account in a transaction (and hence put it at risk) every time someone asks for my SSN. If I have a persona which has its own ID number and a separate bank account with a limited amount of my money in it, when I engage in a transaction I only have to put “as much of my resources and information as necessary” into the transaction. This means that my other resources (the ones I “hide”) do not have to be exposed to thieves and other bad actors.

One can of course use a persona to adopt a personality other than the one used at work or socially. This can be destructive (as when it’s used to perpetrate fraud or otherwise deceive) or constructive (as when one builds an interesting character in an online game, or constructs a persona as an artist, and so on).

Mordaxus: Won’t this just let people run amok? Many people think that “anonymity” (which I put in quotes because it includes pseudonymity
to these people) is the root of many evils. I disagree and think it
is a lack of accountability. It doesn’t really matter, though. How
will personae make the situation better for anything from identity
theft, to paying one’s bills, to politically-motivated Wikipedia edits?

Bob Blakley: An LLP isn’t anonymous, and it is accountable. The government agency which creates it requires a registration process. If something socially harmful is done using the LLP, the normal legal process can be used to associate the LLP with its owners (in fact ownership is usually public information). But as long as the law is followed, the liability incurred by the LLP does not transfer to the owners, and the owners can shield their “real” identities from transaction partners as long as the follow the law and the rules of LLC operation.

Regarding Wikipedia edits, assuming for the moment that there is actually a problem with them, an LLP is not designed to prevent politically-motivated activity of any kind including edits, and, as noted above, it’s not designed to be a vehicle for unbreakable anonymity.

Mordaxus: How will it actually protect me? This comes back to asking what a persona is actually good for.

Bob Blakley:Liability limitation is what LLCs are all about. The fundamental notion of the corporation is that it allows individuals to invest some of their resources in an enterprise which might sustain significant losses, without putting at risk resources which are not invested in the corporation.

Today the liability-limitation (and taxation) benefits of incorporation are enjoyed by business enterprises and the wealthy, but mostly not by private citizens who are not wealty. The LLP proposal is essentially intended to provide the risk-management benefits today enjoyed by the rich to everyone.

Mike Neuenschwander Good questions. I know Bob already took the bait on this one, but I’ll add a little more in the way of theoretical background.
First, persona building is an important human activity. In everyday experience, it’s easy to perceive the self as unified, fixed, separable identity, but that’s not the case at all. (The philosophical / scientific discussion of the topic can be found here.)
When you probe the idea of self bit deeper, you realize that people construct personas for nearly every relationship they engage in. They do this to fill a role that the relationship requires. Personas help set expectations among participants in a relation, provide protections for participants, and set parameters for behavior. Personas also “instruct” participants on how to behave. Role playing an archetypal character is an efficient method for humans to disseminate wisdom throughout society and across generations.

In the natural world (vs the online world), mechanisms exist to place costs on the creation of personas, so people can’t create an indefinite number of them. The natural world also makes it costly to shed personas or to defect from relations and society. In other words, there are natural processes in the natural world from keeping the system in check. In the digital world, they’re woefully sparse. We have “emoticons” (which emote individuals’ feelings) but we need “social emoticons,” which promote empathy, reciprocity, and trust among individuals.