Do you really think you are anonymous?

There is some debating going on in the Identity community about anonymity. See here, here, here and here. Today I came across this post from Eric Norlin which I found very enlightening for me. More specifically this paragraph really got my attention:

Every transaction in the real-world involves not only explicit identification (ATM cards, credit cards, driver’s licenses, or the proxy of cash), but also implicit identification. By implicit identification, I mean the subtle body language and sociological clues that all persons engaged in transactions use (both consciously and subconsciously.) There is not a waitress or convenience store clerk on the planet that will not begin “identifying” the ability of a customer to live up the implicit social contract of commerce based upon their attributes (appearance, cleanliness, socially accepted standards of behavior, etc). This is not the real-world as we’d like it to be. This is the real-world as it is.

At first, I believed you could easily be anonymous in the real world. Imagine, if you walk across town, you never have to identify yourself. Isn’t that a perfect example of anonymity? Turns out it isn’t! Even when you do not identify yourself (using some kind of id card for instance), people can see you, remember you. Next time you walk by, they might even recognize you. You are not anonymous anymore. They might not have much information about you, but they will still be able to identify you as “that guy that passes by around noon each friday”. As long as you cannot prevent one encounter on the street to be linked or correlated with a previous encounter, you are not anynomous.

Eric’s asks the right question:

All of that nasty, real-world talk aside — the question now becomes: Should the online world reflect the real-world, or not?

My first answer would be: no. In some cases (actually, in a lot of cases) I would prefer a level of anonymity that is stronger compared to what I would normally get in the real world. I believe we can achieve this with the right technology. But keep in mind that it will not be easy, as explained by Ben Laurie:

That’s why you need to have anonymity as your bottom layer, on which you build whatever level of privacy you can sustain; remember that until physical onion routing becomes commonplace you give the game away as soon as you order physical goods online, and there are many other ways to make yourself linkable.

Thanks to Infocard and similar technologies, we can achieve some level of anonymity, but as soon as we have to enter our home address to get the physical goods, all anonymity is lost.

Anonymity and privacy are interesting subjects and, in my personal opinion, are part of the foundation of any Internet meta identity system.

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They know what you did last summer.

Some days ago AOL, or at least a team within, decided to release the search dataof more then 650,000 users. They did replace actual user names with random numbers. Using those numbers you could still track all the search terms of a single user.

Then this announcement came: “A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 441774“. By using the search terms they were able to narrow down to a single person.

This makes us wonder how much information we are leaving behind, even anonymously, that allows others to uniquely identify us.

Recent attempts at creating an Internet Meta Identity System (see Infocards and others) do include the possibility to identify yourself more anonymously (for instance being able to prove you are over 21 years) without revealing your identity. However, most sites will still enable tracking cookies. So, over time, they might be able to identify you.

For some reasons I am afraid it is impossible to design a system in which none of the participating parties, except the user, can accumulate enough information to uniquely identify someone. Knowing this, should be part of the user education. Upcoming meta identity systems will enable a smoother and more powerful experience for both the end user and relying parties but it will not completely protect your identity or privacy. You just leave too much footprints behind to ensure that.

While writing this, I saw this Google announcement telling they will still store search data, despite the potential privacy concerns.

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Are you human?

Most of you know these images with letters and numbers embedded, garbled just enough to make it very hard for a computer to recognize them but not garbled enough for a human. These images are called captchas. For some reasons I always have problems with these images. They are an attempt to make me prove I am human but in reality they want me to proof I am a superhuman. Today I registered at digg.com and they use a captcha. It took me 3 tries before I got the image right!

If there would be a benefit to an identity meta-system and Cardspace, it would certainly be the demise of these captcha images.

Using infocards I can prove I am a human, a claim which can be backed by a trusted, third-party identity provider. Not only would I be able to prove that, I also wouldn’t have to come up with yet another username and password on digg.com.

I can’t waith for this identity meta-system to materialise!

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Identity Silos Forever?

Lately there has been a heated discussion in the identity community about identity silos. Google’s announcement of the Google Authentication Services stirred up the fire considerably.

Ben Laurie has added a new episode in his latest blog posting “Comparing Apples and Apples: Microsoft and Google Authentication“:

The end result of the blog deathmatch between me, Kim, Eric and Dick was a deathly silence on what I consider to be the core issue.

OK, its nice that Microsoft are developing identity management software that might not suck (but remember, it still doesn’t satisfy my Laws of Identity) but the question that’s being posed about Google applies equally to Microsoft, and, indeed, anyone else with an identity silo.

So, here’s the question: is Microsoft going to accept third party authentication for access to Microsoft properties?

I would add a question to this: if breaking down the barriers around identity silos is the primary goal, would Microsoft ever give up being an identity provider? Would Microsoft hand over passport.com to a non-profit and free organisation before turning it into an Infocard provider?

Will, with the arrival of Infocards and friends, Identity Silos disappear? Or will they remain as powerful and impenetrable as before?

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