Thursday, February 14, 2013
Identity Management can either be the keystone or the single point of failure for interactions between the online and offline worlds.

So far in this series, I’ve written about mobile technology, connected sensors, 3D Printing (which I called Products-on-Demand or PonD), and Advanced Sharing.  Each of these is important, but the capstone, what will act as a force-multiplier for each, is a better understanding of and method for identity management.

Think about an average week for yourself.  At 10:00 on Monday morning, who are you? What are the critical parts of your identity?  If you work for the government or a large company, chances are you have a badge that will remind you of your primary identity, and which will grant you access to most parts of your building.  You likely also have at least one (and perhaps many more) logins to various computer systems.

And then it’s 6:30 on Tuesday. You’ve been to the gym (great for you—keeping that New Year’s Resolution!) and now, of course, you want to order a pizza.  You’ve just assumed at least your third identity for the day: employee, gym member, Pizza hut customer.

On Friday, I’m sorry to tell you, your child has an ear infection.  You go to the pediatrician where you are the father of the patient: caring, only slightly exasperated, and ready with your black ball-point to fill in form after form.

Identity Management in a Hybrid World

As mobile devices and the software they run permeate more spheres of our lives—from our work, to our gym, to the supermarket and restaurants, to doctor’s offices, and our interactions with all levels of government—identity management can become either the keystone bridging our various identities with their respective places and times.  Conversely, if we do understand or adhere to a comprehensive identity management scheme, it may become the single point of failure that denies us the benefits of the hybrid world we are creating, where the digital and the material constantly interact.

Many people might think of identity management as an issue restricted to online activity only.  But, in a recent article I wrote for TechPresident, I said, “identity isn’t just something that should be getting us into our email accounts. There is so much more that a robust identity management system could streamline.” And that is especially true when citizens interact with their government.  The convenience of entering our identifying information only once for every interaction can actually be measured in dollars.  We simply think about the time it takes (that is—time wasted) filling out the same fields on multiple forms and then multiply that across every form for each citizen.

But before any discussion of identity management can get off the ground, everyone wants to talk about one thing: privacy.  And in order to talk about privacy, its value must be placed in context of two other elements of identity management, convenience and cost.  Think of these three facets as a triangle, from which, currently, we can pick only two.  Various combinations form the backbone of different companies’ business models.

Cost + Convenience – the Facebook/Google Model

When we log in to any number of Web sites, we are given the option of using our Facebook or Google identities to bypass the registration or login scheme.  The Web site accesses those parts of our profile that it needs (name, email address, and avatar, most frequently) and Google or Facebook gets to know the sites we visit.  We give our privacy so that we can login quickly for free.

Privacy + Convenience – The Personal/LastPass model

If we don’t want Google or Facebook to track us, but we also don’t want to fill out every form by hand each time we go to a new site, we can pay for services that will hold our identifying information in its vault and use their software to figure out how to fill in forms as we travel the Web.  Personal, as but one example, encrypts the information on their servers and decrypts only on users’ systems.  By storing only encrypted information, to which not even Personal has the cipher, they ensure the privacy of their customers’ data.  But because they cannot sell their customers’ data, they have to charge the customer directly for the storage and utility of their data.

Privacy + Cost – The “I’ll Fill in My Own Forms” model

The final scheme is simply to keep all the information in our heads.  Eschew all identity-management systems so that (1) Google can’t track us and (2) we do not have to pay for a service, even one that streamlines our interactions not only with government agencies, but a host of private-sector companies as well (think: ticketing agencies, schools, medical offices, etc).

Within this model, however, there is another option: using browser extensions to store personal data.  While this maintains privacy (since the information is not stored on a server of a company that can either analyze it in aggregate or sell it to a company that might), it is not always as protected, since it now lives on a computer, which itself may  be stolen.

Breaking the Model: a Public-Private Solution?

Gathering personal data and analyzing online behavior is a viable business model, and one that competes directly against selling convenient and private identity management.  But both models are threatened by the rise of an identity management system that is not only free and easy, but private as well.  The question is, who would provide that service, and why would they offer it at all?

As I wrote in an article for TechPresident, there is a group of public- and private-sector organizations that are working to create a system for standardizing how identity-management tools operate.  Called “N-STIC,” for National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, the group is charged with developing a set of standards for managing identity that are:

  • Privacy-enhancing: users relinquish as little privacy as possible when they opt into the system
  • Voluntary: users must not be required to opt into the system to manage their identity
  • Secure: identity administrators must fortify the system against breaches
  • Resilient: in the event of a breach, administrators must be able to recover quickly
  • Easy to use: users should not have to have a password like this: J8JΒΝzγΨfΛδ@6%vΤfShr57w/ (My friend John Bordeaux alerted me to this harrowing fact: we’ve made passwords hard to for people to remember, but easy for computers to guess! also: it takes only 6 hours for this computer to guess all Windows passwords.)
  • Interoperable: the system should work on a tablet, a phone, or a computer running any major operating system and should work for any online tool that requires a login
  • Cost-effective: the system must not impose undue financial strain on businesses or consumers that use it

But the question remains: who could develop a free, convenient, private identity-management tool, and why would they do so?

I would argue that when N-STIC is finished developing its standards—ones that any company can use to create it’s own specific tool—a new public-private organization form to develop its own tool.  The benefits are truly economy-wide in terms of work-hours saved, inaccuracies reduced, transaction costs diminished, and barriers to entry lowered.

The chief impediment right now is that no single industry benefits enough to justify the cost of developing and deploying such a tool.  But when N-STIC is finished with its task, it will be easier for a consortium to coalesce, pool resources such that each industry will see a net gain from its participation, and offer a free, private, convenient way for people to manage their identity online.

In my next post, I’ll outline how government agencies can benefit from a population that has trusted identity in cyberspace.