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The Long View of Identity

by Andy Oram
06/29/2006

The vision driving this article is a fervent belief among a far-flung set of researchers, software vendors, and system administrators: when people bring parts of their identities online, they can use the internet more effectively. Commerce sites can recognize them, participants in forums can accept what they have to say, and people who share their interests can cluster more tightly with them.

The popular Facebook social network provides a simple example of the advantages of having an online identity. If you post a photo on Facebook, you can tag each face in it with the identity of your Facebook friend. The friends are notified that someone has posted a photo, other people can identify the subjects of the photo, and you search for other photos of your friends. This is all within Facebook, but numerous systems such as LID are trying to make such capabilities universal. Microsoft (having learned from its mistakes pushing Passport) hopes to institutionalize a more commercial form of identity through its new CardSpace framework.

Because I care intently about online identity myself, I was excited to attend the Identity Mashup conference at Harvard Law school's Berkman Center, one in a series of identity conferences held there. Coming out of a technology space into this legal space was a bit of a culture shock for me. When lawyers consider things--to speak very broadly--they look at how things can hurt people, while I might make an initial categorization of identity systems along social lines, such as:

  • Identity systems that help individuals find each other
  • Identity systems that facilitate commerce
  • Identity systems that promote communities
  • Identity systems that support online government
  • etc.

...or along technical lines, such as:

  • Identity systems based on taxonomies
  • Identity systems based on the web of trust
  • Identity systems based on digital signatures
  • etc.

In contrast, lawyers categorize them as:

  • Identity systems that facilitate fraud
  • Identity systems that violate privacy
  • Identity systems that let corporations control people
  • etc.

Fortunately, the far-thinking Berkman Center can encompass all these different categorizations at once. The conference turned out to be a wonderful mashup of legal, technical, social, and business aspects of online identity. The value of such a conference became most apparent on the third day, when the formal sessions that attracted some two hundred attendees came to an end, but over fifty people from all sorts of disciplines came to a kind of unconference with no preset agenda.

A report on such a conference fits well into my style, which is a mashup of its own. I'll take quotes from different times and places and cite them as if one person were answering another. That reflects, to me, the reality of a conference as a pool where everyone's stream empties and ideas float and drift imperceptibly. In articles such as these, I also mix my opinions freely with what I hear on the conference floor. That saves me the draining effort that many journalists put into the pretense of maintaining objectivity.

The outline of this article is:

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

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