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Debate at the intersection of business, technology and culture in the world of digital identity, both commercial and government, a blog born from the Digital Identity Forum in London and sponsored by Consult Hyperion



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33 posts categorized "Personal Identity"

Grasses up

By Dave Birch posted Jun 17 2008 at 11:56 AM

[Dave Birch] If you haven't been over to Wikileaks, you should probably go and have a quick look before you read the rest of this post! There's an article about it in a recent New Scientist, talking about how "onion routing" is used to provide anonymity. So people (eg, whistleblowers in large corporations) can obtain genuine anonymity online. I'm in favour of this, generally speaking, and it's certainly necessary in a free society. But is it sufficient?

Suppose, for example, that I post a plausible-looking document that seems to show that the British Royal family are actually giant extraterrestrial bloodsucking lizards. How do you know whether it's a genuine leak or a double-cross? If, for example, there's a document purporting to be the Identity & Passport Service's National ID Scheme Options Analysis, how can you be sure that it really comes from them (just to pick a mischievous example) or was made up by someone at No2ID? If we as a society agree that some from of whistleblowing is a social benefit -- and yes, we must also accept that it means that some drug-dealing Nazi child pornographers will be able to take advantage of it too -- then we should have systems in place to deliver it. And that doesn't mean implementing anonymity.

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Engineering principles

By Dave Birch posted Apr 29 2008 at 7:15 PM

[Dave Birch] Privacy and security aren't additional extras, costly options for new system. They are (or should be) part of the fabric. You can choose how to implement systems in either a privacy-enhancing or privacy-reducing way. Take, for example, congestion charging. There are a couple of ways to do this: you could do it the way they do in Singapore, where you have a prepaid card that communicates via RF with an overhead gantry. When you go through a gantry, the system attempts to take a fee from the card. If the transaction goes through (it's an offline purse transaction) then you're on your way. If you borrow a mate's car, you can take your card and put it in his car, no problem. But if you don't have a card, or you don't have any money on your card, then you get photographed. Alternatively, you can do it the British way. In London, all cars get photographed and then automatic numberplate recognition is used to try and work out who to charge. In many cases, it works and the correct account of a poor person is charged. I say poor person, because rich people register their Lambourghinis as taxis and avoid the charge


Cleangreencars has discovered that there are an unusually high number of luxury cars that have been granted the private hire designation, including two Maserati Quattroportes, three Maybach 62 and eight Rolls Royce Phantoms.

[From Taxi!? London luxury car owners register Maseratis, Rolls Royces as C-charge-free private hire vehicles - AutoblogGreen]

Incidentally, if you can't be bothered to send your chauffeur round to register the Porsche as a private hire, you can always just leave the Belgian plates on it, because the supercomputer running the system is not connected to other supercomputers in other European countries...


I drove for 4 years in london with a german plate, many times in the zone (once it was introduced), never paying and my ex never got a ticket sent to her place in HH where the car was registered.

[From London congestion charge for foreign cars]

In fact, as that tax-avoiders' handbook The Independent notes,


there are a number of ways to exploit the loopholes in this system as a private, law-abiding motorist if you are willing to be a little inventive.

[From Congestion charge loopholes: Now just learn the Knowlege... - Features, Motoring - The Independent]

Bit I digress. My point is that we have choices, and not building privacy-enhancing technology into a system is making a positive choice to have a data catastrophe at some point downstream.

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Now, who's smart and who's dumb?

By Dave Birch posted Apr 8 2008 at 7:21 PM

[Dave Birch] There are a great many advantages to smart cards as a platform for digital identity -- they're smart (ie, they have a microprocessor in them) for one thing -- but there's one huge drawback. They need readers. Now you might reasonably assume that no-one would countenance launching a smart card scheme with no readers, but that's precisely what has just happened in the U.K.


Eleven million free travel smart cards have been issued but many buses are not equipped to read them, a report by MPs claims. The report, by the House of Commons Transport Committee, entitled Ticketing and Concessionary Travel on Public Transport, said the situation was "daft". Ten years after committing to integrated bus ticketing, the Government has "achieved too little of practical value", the report said.

[From The Press Association: £1bn bus pass scheme 'stalling']

When they say "not many" buses have been equipped to use the cards, what they actually mean is "virtually no" buses have been equipped to read the cards. The cards are simply being used as "flash passes" so as long as you wave something that looks like a valid card then the bus driver will let you on board since he/she has no way of verifying that the card is valid. Since the cards have a two-year lifetime, and since the readers won't be in place for two years, it's hard to see what the use of them is. It seems like a huge waste of money to me, but then I am not well-versed in government smart card policy...


The first nationwide smartcard-based travel scheme launches next month, but the majority of passengers outside London will not be able to use the advanced functions.

[From Free smartcard travel arrives - 20 Mar 2008 - Computing]

Nor will the majority -- in fact, all -- of the passengers in London since (as the article makes clear) Transport for London won't even begin trialing the readers for these cards until mid-2009 and won't be installing them until 2010.

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Talkin' bout my reputation

By Dave Birch posted Mar 24 2008 at 1:55 PM
[Dave Birch] I went to a talk by Clay Shirky. The talk was, essentially, about his new book Here Comes Everybody. He's a very good speaker, had very cogent and thought-provoking material and has made me start reflecting on my model of identity and reputation once again. There's no point reproducing his talk since you can read the book or the blog yourselves, but there were a few points that I feel like highlighting. The core of what he said was the the technology of the Net has become boring enough to become socially interesting (in other words, my Dad reads my blog now) and one of the first-order effects of this is that media is becoming a call to action. He gave a couple of very well-chosen examples to illustrate the point (taking on the mafia in Palermo via a web site and flashmob protests in Minsk) that it is only now that we are entering the real experimental period as group co-ordination evolves as a branch of political philosophy. This experimental period has some fundamentally new characteristics because of the nature of the underlying technology: in particular, you don't need anyone's help or permission to experiment with new models and the cost of failure is much reduced. This sounds like the next phase may be chaos, but as Kevin Kelly observed "bottom up is never enough". At some point, there needs to be some structure in a group and I think that there is some evidence to suggest that distributed reputation management may well be the only mechanism needed to achieve that once there is some genuine security in place (so that reputations cannot be hijacked). Therefore, my view of the importance of secure credentials is reinforced, because I see reputation as being the history of a virtual identity over time and that virtual identity is a collection of credentials.

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Addressing a real problem

By Dave Birch posted Mar 17 2008 at 9:23 PM

[Dave Birch] There's a general class of problem whereby one party to a transaction needs the other party's address to proceed, but the other party doesn't want to proceed with the transaction if they have to give up their address. Here are a couple of examples.

Over on the Digital Money Blog we decided to mark the launch of the Single European Payments Area (SEPA) by making a celebratory SEPA Credit Transfer (SCT) to a friend in the Netherlands. In order to do this, we had to obtain his bank account details: his IBAN. Now I think that in many circumstances, people will be reluctant to give this sort of information out, lest they suffer a Jeremy Clarkson-style incursion. So why can't the bank give me a pseudonym to use in transactions: if someone wants to send me money, they can send it to leadbelly.gutbucket@barclays.co.uk, or whatever. I don't mind giving out this pseudonym, since only the banks knows that it's mean. So when an SCT for leadbelly arrives, the money can be routed to my account. I can publish the pseudonym on my web page if I want, just as I can happily give out my PayPal address, since only I know that it's mine (well, PayPal know as well, of course).

Another example comes from the retail space. A retailer wants me to give him my mobile phone number so that he can let me know when a relevant special offer is on. I want to know that the relevant special offer is on. But I'm not giving my mobile phone number to a retailer: I don't want them ringing me up until Kingdom Come. I want control over the link between the retailer and me. Once again, why doesn't the phone company allow me to create arbitrary pseudonyms, so I can tell the retailer that I'm leadbelly@O2: the retailer (and any else) can text to leadbelly@O2 and the O2 SMS centre will route it to the correct phone number. If I don't want to do business any more, I can just junk the pseudonym.

Hey presto, an addressing scheme that provides both convenience and privacy.

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Chinese whispers

By davebirch posted Nov 26 2007 at 11:56 AM
[Dave Birch] Lying on your Facebook page is part of the fun, isn't it? Just like being a man in Second Life if you're a woman. Surely being able to play around with multiple identities is one of the fascinating new aspects of life online? Apparently, not everyone shares such a playful and experimental view of virtual identity. One of China's major game operators has announced that they will freeze the accounts of male players who have elected to play as female characters in the King of the World MMORPG. Apparently there are no bans on women playing male characters, but women (and men-wanting-to-play-as-women) will be required to prove their gender via webcam. I did not make this up. Women will be required to prove their gender via webcam (how, exactly? -- the mind literally boggles). And this is in a country with compulsory ID cards. Next they'll be saying that you can only be a Gnome Bard if you are in real life less than four feet tall and able to recite a medieval Icelandic saga from memory. Who is running these games, David Blunkett? (Note to foreign readers, David Blunkett was the British Home Secretary who introduced the current British identity card scheme).

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This what virtual identities are for

By davebirch posted Oct 12 2007 at 4:26 PM
[Dave Birch] The New York Times published an article based on a concept put forward by Mike Neuenschwander of Burton Group.. This is what he called the "Limited Liability Persona" (or LLP). This persona would be a legally recognized virtual person in which users could “invest” the financial or identity resources of their choosing. Once their individual personas are created, consumers would be able to use them as their legal “alter ego,” even in financial transactions. As Mike says:
My L.L.P. would have its own mailing address, its own tax ID number, and that’s the information I’d give when I’m online.
. The author of the Times article, Denise Caruso quotes Drummond Reed as well:
The myth is that companies have to know all this information about you in order to do business with you ... [b]ut from a liability perspective, the less I know about my customers the better.
Or, as Forum friend and former editor of Wired UK John Browning wrote a decade ago (in Wired 5.11)
The true identity of a counterparty may be the least interesting fact about them in a commercial transaction.
Drummond's point is made form the perspective from the U.S. National Retail Federation open letter to the credit card industry asking them to stop putting retailers on "the horns of a dilemma" by requiring them to store personal data, but then turning around and penalizing them when that data gets compromised. The LLP idea aims to help by giving retailers (and everyone else, of course) help to protect individuals by giving those individuals identities which contain only a limited amount of personal information (I don't see why companies would have LLPs as well though). If this sounds familiar, and I sound uncritical, that's because this is one of our PET projects: but we don't call them LLPs (I prefer to shy away from the word "liability") but pseudonymous virtual identities, and they solve more problems than PCI-DSS compliance.

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Sva cviqve persona

By davebirch posted Sep 24 2007 at 8:52 PM
[Dave Birch] The idea that people might be represented by signs rather than names is actually rather an old one, and I'm not saying this just because I went to see the artist currently known as Prince in London last week. From a technical perspective, I can see the obvious advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, there are a lot more signs than there are names and they are a help for the illiterate. On the minus side, it makes issuing identity cards a lot more complicated (although a lot more interesting as well). But I also think that signs carrying a meaning that names do not: I quite like the idea of a sign for my individual persona, a sign for my work persona, a sign for my play persona and so forth. This would have the effect of communicating my persona to counterparties in a rich way, like choosing a pseudonym but acting simultaneously as an identity selector and a mask. Who do you want to be today, so to speak. Since I believe firmly that we have to develop a this richer notion of identity before we can make progress digitising it, the connection between signs, logos, masks and pseudonyms is fascinating.

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There is such a thing as society

By davebirch posted May 26 2007 at 9:31 AM
[Dave Birch] Or, at least, there is such as thing as the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (the RSA), founded in 1754. I popped in today, for an afternoon seminar on Society, Government and the Internet [MP3].

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If you can't stand the heat, get out of the chatroom

By davebirch posted Mar 13 2007 at 11:39 AM

[Dave Birch] I'm always looking out for real-world problems that appear serious but where intelligent analysis shows that an effective digital identity infrastructure can support good solutions.  As such, I often use the "chatroom paradox" as a simple example of how the technology to deliver pseudonymity can balance the needs to stakeholders even in a contentious environment.  But I'm a technologist, so I tend to dwell on how online identities might be protected rather than why they might be protected.  A recent Israeli court ruling has made me think about this again.

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