Four Pillars: More on Opposable Thumbs: Thoughts on Identity


Thanks to David Benbennick for the Zen koan-like sight of one thumb opposing.
Whenever you’re in a conversation about identity, two things come up regularly:

  • The need to support confidentiality and secrecy and privacy of information
  • The need to support confidentiality and secrecy and privacy of identity

I, for one, am distinctly underwhelmed by the arguments for either of these things.
If these things were obvious, then I guess there would be less need to blog about it. Conversations where people have undiluted, potentially dogmatic or even bigoted certainty can be pretty boring. There’s a Baconesque doubts-to-certainties vulnerability about blogging. And all I am doing here is sharing my doubts, to try and set a few more snowballs off.
Why am I doubtful about confidentiality and privacy and secrecy and their relationship with identity? Here’s the thing. Of late I see that people start speaking of disaggregating information to unit pieces, associating each unit piece with a sell-by-date and a time-stamp. And I smell a rat. Why?

Back to Cluetrain and conversations. Back to Doc Searls and African pastors. Back to Middle Eastern souks and Indian bazaars. Relationship before transaction. Relationship. Relationship. If I trust someone then I am willing to converse with that person and share confidences, in the knowledge that the information will not be misused. Period. And if there is any granularity or continuum to find, it is in the relationship and not the information. Which I will come to later.
Granular time-sensitive information feels like a myth created for bad DRM and bad IPR and bad IMS. People who want to control things because they can. Not consumer or community driven, but vendor-directed.

It’s like itemised billing for telephone calls, and no different from region-encoding on DVDs. We need to be very careful here.

I want to make calls. And if I were to design how I want to be billed for them, I would choose always-on eat-as-much-as-I-like call-anytime call-anywhere call-anyone. I do not need itemised billing for this.

The only reason to have itemised billing is because someone else, not me, wants the ability to charge me by item. Not because I want to pay by item. I want to pay on an unlimited basis. [ A tangent: I can visualise the possibility of there being different levels of unlimited, much like Cantor’s different infinities. As long as we keep it simple, it could work].
Just see what happens when you allow such thinking to continue. Before you know it, you have people employed in organisations whose raison d’etre is to check other people’s telephone bills. Because they can. Not because there is any value in doing it. There is no value in finding out that John Smith spent $5.83 on personal calls using his business cellphone in March 2006. The statement is a function of the existence of itemised billing. If John’s employers had a contract with unlimited calls for a fixed tariff, the statement would not exist.

It’s the sort of thinking that will install bugs in watercoolers and coffee shops and lifts. Because they can. You, sir, have been found guilty of discussing the merits of Liverpool Football Club in the lift at 1.49pm yesterday. How do you plead?

What tosh.

More worryingly, as soon as you allow people to impute “confidentiality” and “time” to a piece of information, you allow for differential charging at every point in the process. Processor and chipset. Connection and network. Software.

And all for no value. Exactly like region coding of DVDs.

Confidentiality is about trust. When the merchants of Lombardy sat on their benches and conversed and transacted, what held them together was relationship and trust. My word is my bond. Semper fi for the financial community. Not granular or selective. Covering the entire relationship.

And when trust was unacceptably broken, the relationship was over. Not a transaction, the relationship. All nine yards of it. The bench the guy sat on was broken. The banco was rutto. He was bankrupt.

So. About confidentiality. I am all for confidentiality, but at the relationship level, without granular information and without time decay. What you share you should be able to share unconditionally. And guess what? Relationships are about covenants, not contracts. They do not understand time the same way computers do. And don’t want to understand time that way either.
Confidentiality within the relationship is important, even crucial. Parent-child. Teacher-student. Pastor-parishioner. Bank-customer. Attorney-client. Doctor-patient. Journalist-source. Copper-nark, or policeman-informant. Even whistlelistener-whistleblower. And in a perfect world, government-citizen.

The confidentiality should cover the entire relationship. That is what trust is about, what builds trust and what trust builds. And I cannot for the life of me figure out what anonymity has to do with it. Here be dragons.
Allowing anonymity to be protected creates a whole new set of problems for us. These are tactical responses that in Michael Hammer speak pave over the cowpaths. Digital anonymity cures the symptom and not the disease.

Once we start worrying about showing who we are, we cause new problems. Even prisoners of war gave out their name, rank, serial number. Todd Beamer did not seem worried about his privacy of identity when he challenged the terrorists on board Flight 93. And he could not have paid a bigger price. But he did the right thing. And will remain an inspiration for me for the rest of my life.

You cannot tackle cowards with anonymity. They will keep returning, whether as terrorists or control-freak states or even schoolyard bullies.

When people ask for anonymity, we are better off trying to fix their reason for fear, not hiding the people in digital equivalents of witness protection.

I could be wrong. But my gut feel is that confidentiality and privacy and secrecy cover entire relationships and not pieces of them.

Relationships are always-on. Unlimited use. Not transaction-priced. And identity needs to be designed to understand this, not to support vast emperors-new-clothes edifices of transaction pricing and false concepts of anonymity.

Let me know what you think

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