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« Tough choices | Main | Mexican standoff »

Who thinks pseudonymity isn't important?

By Dave Birch posted Apr 12 2011 at 3:13 AM

OK, at the extreme risk of boring everyone to tears, let's ask the same old question again: should you be allowed to do things on the Internet without giving away your "real" identity? Remember this was something that was discussed here a little while back, using the simple case of newspaper comments as an example. Someone has come up with an interesting way of solving for two problems simultaneously: paying for news online and making people responsible for their comments...

However, he recently went back and was surprised that, in order to comment you need to hand over your credit card, and the paper will charge you $0.99. Obviously, this is more to prove that you are who you say you are, but it does seem a bit distorted when the newspaper wants to charge people just to comment. Also, once charged, your name and hometown are automatically associated with your comments.

[From Newspaper Wants You To Pay To Comment | Techdirt]

Interesting. I think the idea of paying to comment is very interesting. I might be tempted to do that in some cases. But paying to give up your real name? I'm not so sure. I might well want to comment on something without that kind of disclosure. Back to "real names" again. The discussion goes on and on.

Why does a comment with a real name have so much more value?

[From The Real “Authenticity Killer” (and an aside about how bad the Yahoo brand has gotten) — Scobleizer]

This isn't always true. A nurse at a hospital, forced to comment with her real name, is highly unlikely to post anything critical of a doctor. There's a difference between an authenticated persona (so that the web site can be sure she really is a nurse at the hospital) that may be based on a pseduonym (or even a cryptographically strong unconditionally unlinkable anonym) and an authenticated identity. There may be many reasons why the latter is undesirable.

Mexico announced a plan Monday to reward people who report suspected money laundering, under a program that will allow them to get up to one-quarter of any illicit funds or property seized. Under the new plan, people can file reports in person, by telephone or by e-mail. The exact percentage of individual rewards will be determined case by case by a special committee.

[From Mexico sets rewards for reporting money laundering | ajc.com]

Would you e-mail in a tip about a suspected money launderer and expect to pick up the reward? It seems to me that this is a good example of system that demands real names for integrity but real names mean it can never work. (Although, and it's outside the scope of this piece, it is entirely cryptographically possible to enable the payment of rewards to anonymous people).

Public servants, law enforcement and banking system employees will not be eligible for the rewards, in part because it is already their duty to report suspicious transactions.

[From Mexico sets rewards for reporting money laundering | ajc.com]

Good luck to anyone who decides to report in person, or by telephone. SIM registration is mandatory in Mexico, which means that the money launderers will find you before the police do -- don't forget, they have more money than the police do. Come to that, they have more money than anyone does.

More shocking, and more important, the bank was sanctioned for failing to apply the proper anti-laundering strictures to the transfer of $378.4bn – a sum equivalent to one-third of Mexico's gross national product – into dollar accounts from so-called casas de cambio (CDCs) in Mexico, currency exchange houses with which the bank did business.

[From How a big US bank laundered billions from Mexico's murderous drug gangs | World news | The Observer]

Given the stringent anti-money laundering (AML) regulations in place around the globe -- which meant it took me 15 minutes to put a few quid on my Travelex prepaid card at Heathrow, something I will never do again -- I'm surprised that this could have happened, but there you go. Perhaps instead of hassling people trying to load low-value prepaid payment accounts, the authorities could focus on the counterparties in larger electronic transfers. Hence the discussions about Legal Entity Identifiers (LEIs) that have been going on recently. Many interbank payment messages have account identifiers only -- you could send money to my account with the name Carlos Tevez and it would still get to me because it's only the account stuff that matters -- and the some law enforcement agencies want to stop this and have banks validate the names as well (it will help to track funds to and from suspects I guess).

LEI will be assigned at the over all corporate entity level and also at subsidiary levels. Its usage will be standardized Internationally. My immediate thought was, never mind systemic risk, this is the perfect means to route B2B transactions across a myriad of financial systems and payment schemes worldwide!

[From Reflections on NACHA Payments 2011 — Payments Views from Glenbrook Partners]

I'm sure I'd heard somewhere before, possibly at IPS 2010, that the plan was to use the SWIFT business identifier codes (BICs), but apparently that's no longer the case.

Vandenreydt said SWIFT is changing its tune due to a recent meeting of the International Standardization Organization’s Technical Committee 68, where SWIFT has a seat. At the meeting, participants concluded that developing a new code would help avoid ambiguities that might be involved if existing codes are used. “[The committee] wants a pure number without country or other information,” Vandenreydt added. The BIC is made up of eight to 11 alphanumeric characters with four letters for the bank, two letters for the country, two digits for the location, and three digits for the specific branch.

The utility is still working with ISO on what the identifier would look like. Vandenreydt said that process could take up to three months, though he expects a decision to be made sooner. He noted the proposal also depends on other details about the initiative that haven’t been specified by OFR, such as how long the registration authority would have to ramp up the system, whether IDs will be assigned or requested, and how many codes are expected.

[From SWIFT Retools Legal Entity Identifier Proposal]

So here's a positive suggestion. Forget about the 1960s notion of an identifier as a unique alphanumeric code and instead make the identifier a pseudonym attested by a bank. So we become consult.hyperion!barclays.co.uk or something similar. It doesn't matter whether the sender, or anyone else, knows who Consult Hyperon is, because the identifier tells them that Barclays does. And for 99% of real-world transactions, that's enough. What's important is that we are always consult.hyperion!barclays.co.uk in all relevant linked transactions. Then, if consult.hyperion!barclays.co.uk is found to be sending money to Osama bin Laden on a regular basis, the appropriate law enforcement agencies can provide Barclays with a warrant and Barclays will disclose. For general commerce, the persistence is the critical foundation. The always-accurate Eve Maler pointed this out a while back:

The neat thing is, we do this all the time already. When you meet someone face-to-face and they say their Skype handle is KoolDood, and later a KoolDood asks to connect with you on Skype and describes the circumstances of your meeting, you have a reasonable expectation it’s the right guy ever after. And it’s precisely the way persistent pseudonyms work in federated identity: as I’ve pointed out before, a relying-party website might not know you’re a dog, but it usually needs to know you’re the same dog as last time.

[From Tofu, online trust, and spiritual wisdom | Pushing String]

Quite. But there's another point. You don't need to be a "real" persistent identity to have a reputation, as should be obvious. A useful reminder of this came at the end of 2010, when an anonymous critic was named the Village Voice's "Music Critic of the Year".

Twitter spokesperson Matt Graves called it a "milestone"; whether he's serious or not, ("dead serious," he later said) @discographies certainly carries a certain seriousness throughout today's interview in the Village Voice. "Twitter," the account holder says, "may be the first mass communications system that also functions as a meritocracy: it actively promotes good ideas and good content, regardless of where they come from."

[From Anonymous Twitter Account Named Music Critic of Year by Village Voice]

I'm not sure that meritocracy is the right word, but I think the sentiment is accurate: you have to earn reputation to attach to your identifier, and once it's been earned it's hard to replicate (unlike intellectual property). So I might want to send money to @discographies without knowing or caring whether @discographies is a roomful of students or an internationally-known music critic. (And, over on Digital Money, I will point out that I want to send money to @dgwbirch -- which is an entirely unique Twitter identifier -- by MasterCard, PayPal, WebMoney, M-PESA or anything else, but that's another point entirely.) Why can't @discographies be mutated into discographics!wellsfargo.com or whatever?

It's an entirely plausible model: banks managing reputation, because it's more important than money. The presence of banks legitimises the market, so knowing that a bank has carried out some KYC on @discographies means that other players can treat the reputation attached to it seriously without being concerned about the "real" identity.

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Comments

Who needs a pseudonym when your name is "Snodgrass"? As a boy, I wished for some anonymity, then I came to embrace the uniqueness, and finds that it lends for a certain credibility.

Mr. Birch, the links to your article have implications for those of us who are not hiding, and have the "uniqueness" of being disabled, and living on a fixed income from Social Security.

A low income, beginning Samuel Langhorne Clemens, would have difficulty in todays digital media. Whereas, sadly, a scammer, spammer, or hacker, well, I'm not qualified to comment on high-tech, as I computer-stumble.

I am 'interested in what you are doing', @dgwbirch - your homepage suggests to me, an abstract, that 'together...', we could all contribute in making a difference.

Thank you! My very best, to you and yours, bob (@dbobsnodgrass)

Has anyone ever commented on that newspaper? Asking for a fee before anyone can comment? What's in it for people who comment then? Sorry I'm just surprise and it got me curious.


~Stefan

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