Summary

Natural anonymity comes from our ability to recognize others without the aid of an external identity system. Online interactions can only mirror life-like anonymity when we have decentralized identity systems that don't put all unteractions under the purview of centralized administrative systems.

At VRM-day prior to Internet Identity Workshop last week, Joyce Searls commented that she wants the same kind of natural anonymity in her digital life that she has in real life.

In real life, we often interact with others—both people and institutions—with relative anonymity. For example, if I go the store and buy a coke with cash there is no exchange of identity information necessary. Even if I use a credit card it's rarely the case that the entire transaction happens under the administrative authority of the identity system inherent in the credit card. Only the financial part of the transaction takes place in that identity system. This is true of most interactions in real life.

In contrast, in the digital world, very few meaningful transactions are done outside of some administrative identity system. There are several reasons why identity is so important in the digital world:

  • Continuity—Because of the stateless nature of HTTP, building a working shopping cart, for example, requires using some kind of token for correlation of independent HTTP transactions. These tokens are popularly known as cookies. While they can be pseudonymous, they are often correlated across multiple independent sessions using a authenticated identifier. This allows, for example, the customer to have a shopping cart that persists across time on different devices.
  • Convenience—So long as the customer is authenticating, we might as well further store additional information like addresses and credit card numbers for their convenience, to extend the shopping example. Storing these allows the customer to complete transactions without having to enter the same information over and over.
  • Trust—There are some actions that should only be taken by certain people, or people in certain roles, or with specific attributes. Once a shopping site has stored my credit card, for example, I ought to be the only one who can use it. Identity systems provide authentication mechanisms as the means of knowing who is at the other end of the wire so that we know what actions they're allowed to take. This places identifiers in context so they can be trusted.
  • Surveillance—Identity systems provide the means of tracking individuals across transactions for purposes of gathering data about them. This data gathering may be innocuous or nefarious, but there is no doubt that it is enabled by identity systems in use on the Internet.

In real life, we do without identity systems for most things. You don't have to identify yourself to the movie theater to watch a movie or log into some system to sit in a restaurant and have a private conversation with friends. In real life, we act as embodied, independent agents. Our physical presence and the laws of physics have a lot to do with our ability to function with workable anonymity across many domains.

So, how did we get surveillance and it's attendant affects on natural anonymity as an unintended, but oft-exploited feature of administrative digital identity systems? Precisely because they are administrative.

Legibility

Legibility is a term used to describe how administrative systems make things governable by simplifying, inventorying, and rationalizing things around them. Venkatesh Rao nicely summarized James C. Scott's seminal book on legibility and its unintended consequences: Seeing Like a State.

Identity systems make people legible in order to offer continuity, convenience, and trust. But that legibility also allows surveillance. In some respect, this is the trade off we always get with administrative systems. By creating legibility, they threaten privacy.

Administrative systems are centralized. They are owned. They are run for the purposes of their owners, not the purposes of the people or things being administered. They are bureaucracies for governing something. They rely on rules, procedures, and formal interaction patterns. Need a new password? Be sure to follow the password rules of what ever administrative system you're in.

Every interaction you have online happens under the watchful eye of a bureaucracy built to govern the system and the people using it. The bureaucracy may be benevolent, benign, or malevolent but it controls the interaction.

Real Life is Decentralized

On the other hand, in real life we interact as peers. We do interact with administrative systems of various sorts, but no one would describe that as real life. When I go to a store, I don't think about shopping within their administrative system. Rather, I walk in, look at stuff, talk to people, put things in a cart, and check out. The administrative system is there, but it's for governing the store, not the customers.

We can't achieve Joyce's vision of anonymous online interactions until we redecentralize the Internet. The Internet started out decentralized. The early Web was decentralized. But the need for continuity, convenience, and trust led more and more interactions to happen within someone's administrative system.

Most online administrative systems make themselves as unobtrusive as they can. But there's no getting around the fact that every move we make is within a system that knows who we are and monitors what we're doing. In real life, I don't rely on the administrative system of the restaurant to identify the people I'm having dinner with. The restaurant doesn't need to check thead IDs of me and the others in my party or surveil us in order to create an environment where we can talk.

The good news is that we're finally developing the tools necessary to create decentralized online experiences. What if you could interact with your friends on the basis of an identity that they bring to you directly—one that you could recognize and trust? You wouldn't need Facebook or Snapchat to identify and track your friends for you. You could do it yourself.

One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to help get Sovrin up and running is that I believe decentralized identity is the foundation for a decentralized Web—a Web that flexibly supports the kind of ad hoc interactions people have with each other all the time in real life. We'll never get an online world that mirrors real life and it's natural anonymity until we do.


Photo Credit: Network from Pezibear (CC0 Public Domain)