Always-on identification

David Weinberger's recent essay, There's No "I" in "Identity", advances a notion of real-world identity that's so different from mine I had to sort out why. David writes:

In the real world, we don't identify everyone. We only identify those about whom we have doubts that we have to resolve for some purpose. Identifying is not the default in the real world. Nor, IMO, should it be online. [JOHO]
Compare this with the following memorable quote from Bruce Schneier's Secrets and Lies:
Authentication is about the continuity of relationships, knowing who to trust and who not to trust, making sense of a complex world. Even nonhumans need authentication: smells, sound, touch. Arguably, life itself is an authenticating molecular pit of enzymes, antibodies, and so on.
I remember this quote because I included it in my review of the book, which I continue to think is not only Schneier's best book, but also the best book I've ever read on the topic of security.

Distinguishing between self and other is what every living organism does, all the time. So is identifying others. Humans are hardwired to recognize faces, voices, gaits. We do it always and automatically. Perhaps so automatically that we don't notice, for the most part, that we are doing it. When my teenage daughter comes downstairs there's rarely any ambiguity about who she is. (Though there can be, sometimes it's one of her friends.) But at 100 yards, watching someone that might be her walking up the street, identification becomes a foreground task. Is that her gait? Her hairstyle? Her clothing? Once these questions are asked, it becomes imperative to answer them.

Suppose she has just returned from shopping downtown, where she made a cash purchase in a store. We might be inclined to call this an anonymous transaction. There was no need for identification, so none presumably occurred. Except that's not really true. If she paid with a twenty-dollar bill and forgot to pick up her change, odds are she can return to the store and collect it. The store clerk's lizard-brain will authenticate her face, her voice, her gait. Or, what's becoming increasingly likely, the store's surveillance camera will.

Of sci-fi's three "killer B's" (Gregory Benson, David Brin, Greg Bear), the one most often cited in discussions of identity and privacy is David Brin, whose book The Transparent Society I can't recommend too often. But I think it was Gregory Benson who, in his 2000 keynote talk at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, said that we "shed data trails" as we move through the real world, just as surely as we do when we move through cyberspace.

With cameras proliferating in meatspace and blogs pervading cyberspace, it's getting harder and harder to distinguish between "real" and "virtual" data trails. Does it matter? David and I agree that it doesn't. We're 180 degrees apart on the default case, though. I think identification defaults to always-on.

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