Many of the relationships we have online don’t have to be long-lived. Ephemeral relationships, offering virtual anonymity, are technically possible without a loss of functionality or convenience. Why don’t they exist? Surveillance is profitable.

Ghost Trees

In real life, we often interact with others—both people and institutions—with relative anonymity. For example, if I go the store and use cash to buy a coke there is no exchange of identity information. 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.

I don't have an account at the local grocery store where I store my address, credit card, and other information so that each transaction is linked to a record about me. True, many businesses have loyalty programs and use those to collect information about customers, but those are optional. And going without one doesn't significantly inconvenience me. In fact, the point of the credit card system is that it avoids long-lived relationships between any of the parties except the customer (or merchant) and their bank.

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 administrative 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.

One of the surprising things about identity in the physical world is that so many of the relationships are ephemeral rather than long-lived. While the ticket taker at the movies and the server at the restaurant certainly "identify" patrons, they forget them as soon as the transaction is complete. And the identification is likely pseudonymous (e.g. "the couple at table four" rather than "Phillip and Lynne Windley"). These interactions are effectively anonymous.

Of course, 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. But we've accepted long-lived relationships with full legibility of patrons as the default on the web.

Some of that is driven by convenience. I like storing my credit cards and shipping info at Amazon because it's convenient. I like that they know what books I've bought so I don't buy the same book more than once (yeah, I'm that guy). But what if I could get that convenience without any kind of account at Amazon at all? That's the promise of verifiable credentials and self-sovereign identity.

You can imagine an ecommerce company that keeps no payment or address information on customers, but is still able to process their orders and send the merchandise. If my shipping information and credit card information are stored as verifiable credentials in a digital wallet I control, I can easily provide these to whatever web site I need to as needed. No need to have them stored. And we demonstrated way back in 2009 a way to augment results from a web site with a self-sovereign data store. That could tell me what I already own as I navigate a site.

There's no technical reason we need long-lived relationships for most of our web interactions. That doesn't mean we won't want some for convenience, but they ought to be optional, like the loyalty program at the supermarket, rather than required for service. Our digital lives can be as private as our physical lives if we choose for them to be. We don't have to allow companies to surveil us. And the excuse that they surveil us to provide better service is just that—an excuse. The real reason they surveil us is because it's profitable.

Photo Credit: Ghost Trees from David Lienhard (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Last modified: Mon Aug 9 17:00:03 2021.