Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Identity is Mashed Up

I posted last month about Bob Blakely’s podcast with Phil Windley.

Now (by which I really mean last month, wow I’m running behind!) Bob posts that the “Relationship Paper Now Freely Available,” and I’m embarrassed to say I stole Bob’s opening sentence.

Now that I’ve actually read the paper, I’d like to remix the ideas with some web 2.0 Zero Knowledge Infomediation craziness and having thus altered it, send it back out, its identity changed.

One of the core ideas in the paper is that of intermediaries who will represent for you. These intermediaries, who Bob says have a ‘custodial relationship with your data,’ rather than a transactional one, will know lots about you, and gossip as you let them. It’s like letters of introduction or recommendation–you select who you think can represent you well, and if they have a relationship with the person you want to talk to, then things are great.

This is a useful model because a business can perform due diligence on a few of these infomediaries, rather than on each customer. I’m using the phrase infomediary, which some of you may remember from the book Net Worth. The idea was you’d have someone representing you to the net, who would help you get good deals. It was a very consumer-centric idea in some ways, advertising-centric in others.

The difference with the 1990s infomediary concept is that Bob has a great angle on why a business would want to engage with the infomediary, rather than engage in surveillance itself.

It’s a compelling vision, but I’m not sure I buy it as a complete view of identity. As a citizen, I don’t want to work with a single identity provider. The lock in risk seems very high.

But worse, I don’t have one identity. My identity is created through a set of relationships: with family and friends, with employers, but also with colleagues who I’ve never worked with directly (like Mordaxus and Chris) and with former co-workers who aren’t exactly friends. For example, I had a great three hour lunch and walk around Rock Ridge with a fellow who I’d worked with at Zero-Knowledge, and seen maybe once since. I feel a little like Comic Book Guy, caught in a new situation, and forced to say “There’s no emoticon for what I’m feeling!”

Some of our business relationships lead to personal ones, of friendship or romance. The bright lines which once existed are gone. A business which tries to help us with all of these may end up creepy like Facebook. One which only sees one aspect of our lives may well get and give a one dimensional view of us.

I’m thinking of two folks reading this. One is saying “what’s the point?” Another is identifying this as “Adam brain spew.” Which is another way of saying that this is all over the place.

And perhaps, in a world in which we present different selves at different times, that is exactly my response to Bob.

4 comments on "Identity is Mashed Up"

  • Iang says:

    I agree with the sentiment. Identity is not something that can be singular, nor can it more easily be made multiple. It’s a concept, a view, a metaphor, and as soon as we try and fix it in code, we lose.
    Hence, good apps like Facebook ignore it, mostly. Really, applications and the real world, is about relationships and communication, and they care not a jot for Identity. Sometimes this means they make mistakes which some label as Identity mistakes, and the Identity-polizie come banging and force some changes. But as soon as that is over they get back to the application: relationships, communication, etc.
    If we are talking about Identity, then we are not talking about people, relationships, commerce and we can’t be improving things for them. So, um, “was there a point?” 🙂

  • Dave Birch says:

    In practice won’t people settled for an obvious compromise between the practical and esoteric and end up having three or four different “identities” just as they have three or four different payment cards? What’s wrong with having a government identity, an eBay identity, a bank identity and a Facebook identity and navigating around the world (online and offline) using those, leaving the default minimum-disclosure in place most of the time and then switching other identities in when needed to support specific transactions? That seems workable.
    Some of the identities will then be predominantly about relationships and communications.

  • dwaynedibbly says:

    Thanks for the post, it helped inspire one of my own (here). I think that the identity problem is deep rooted. I suggest a different philosophical approach – essential using identity as a verb, rather than a noun; which makes identity less about protection, more about context-driven validation.

  • dwaynedibbly says:

    Apparently a hamster ate my hyperlink in the above comment so here it is again….. Adam for pointing it out.

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