Category Archives: identity

Style as a Middleman

I’m reluctant to write this up.  I feel I’m wandering onto really fresh turf here.  Because this is really about style and design; and the various audiences that craft addresses.  Something I don’t really know anything about.

One thing that caught my fancy in the book “Buying In” was the idea that products are two faced, like the middleman.  Products you use in public, like an iPod, have one face they show to the public and another which they show to you.  To hear him tell it when the iPod first appeared cultural observers took two quite polar positions about it.  Some celebrated way it empowered a deeper intimate relationship between citizens and their music collections.  While some railed about how the white headphones created a tribe, a kind of social signaling, and members of this tribe were walling themselves off inside a cult of iPod.

There is a large literature that presumes most style and fashion exists to serve a social signaling function.  For example to denote membership in a tribe or to make the owner appear high-value.  And no doubt that is one function of style, but yet I’m starting to think such talk is often just a cheap shot.  It’s easy to see the signaling, the public face of the product.  It’s hard to see the private face.  Intimate relationship between the user and the product and intimate and complex relationship between the member and his tribe.

There are some products were this public/private tension is particularly high.  I have a beautiful scarf.  Nice enough that people feel free to comment on it.  But they have no idea how sensual it’s cashmere is, nor other things about it I’ll pass over.

In another portion of the book he mentions how some publishers engage claques to ride public transportation reading new books, carefully so other passengers can take note of their dust jackets.  In telling the iPod story it sounds as if Apple’s designers were largely unaware how the white headphones would create a unified field for the products branding.  That white headphone decision appears to have been forced by the white packaging.  Of course Apple is often quite aggressive in shaping the public face of their products.  The iPod on the table here is black, but the headphones are still white.

The public/private face of stuff takes a odd turn when you move into a private space, say someone’s home or office.  Corporate buyers sometimes decorate their offices with false signals to undermine the salesmen, i.e. photos suggesting hobbies the buyer doesn’t actually engage in.  I once scanned the book shelf at a party only to become confused by the diversity of the owner’s taste.  Later I discovered the owner was a publisher and he had a copy of most everything the firm had ever published.

I have gone into homes that are indistinguishable from a high end hotel suite.  I wonder then, does this mean the owners have no intimate relationships with stuff; or does it mean they are just that aggressive about keeping that information private.  I’ve been in the homes of some people so rich that they have rooms which reveal only a public self, while further in you’d find more revealing rooms.  People do manage their public presentation of self, and if you often bring people into your private home then your likely to manage it there.

Yesterday Karim came at this from another side, writing on “The Anti-Social Nature of the Kindle.”  He complains about how his Kindle denies him the ability to present a public face.  But I notice how Amazon, the middleman, stripped one of the product’s two faces of as it passed thru their distribution channel.  And while that must drive the publisher’s crazy, as Karim points out sometimes you want to reveal the public face of your stuff.

Anonymous Phone

It is frustrating that there is no chance I’ll ever know the real story here.  This article says that they, you know they, are disabling 25 million cell phones in India.  These are generally cheap phones and what they have in common is they lack a unique id number, what’s known as the IMEI.  Twenty five million phones is a lot of phones, and since these phones are presumably owned by the poorest segment of the population I suspect it is a significant taking of their total wealth.  But that’s only one frame I’d like to understand this story in.  For example the story says that 30% of the phones sold in India fall into this category, which means that this is a horrific blow to most of the cell phone retailers.

I entirely dismiss the nominal rational given – i.e. that this is a security move.  If the phone companies can do billing they can do security.  I suspect this is about billing, and not security.  But it might be about operational issues, since I assume that these phones all have an IMEI just not a unique one.  I bet there is a fun geeky story about how the phone industry has been dealing with that.

I suspect that the makers of pricier brand name phones are terrified by the rising tied of off-brand cheap phones.  I wonder if this could be an attempt on their part to bankrupt, or at least raise the barriers to entry, of the smaller producers and their distribution networks.

It’s interesting how anonymous phones have strong synergistic with cheap phones.  In the US if you use cash to buy prepaid phone and it’s minutes you can get a phone that has no ties to your identity.  That falls apart the moment you start leaving a trail of phone records to your social network, but still.  In at least one country in Europe, I’m told, I’d have to provide my passport when I bought a prepaid SIM.  Such regulations create a broad tax on the entire population with assorted consequences.  The nominal rational is always to spin up a story about criminal activity involving a cell phone.  Personally I think we should register our alarm clocks too.

I find the more subtle consequences of requiring non-anonymous phones more interesting.  The way it shapes the industry.  The unit cost of phones and network access are falling so far and fast that the cost of this kind of that kind regulatory requirement becomes a significant portion of the total cost.  At which point the industry’s attention become increasingly focused on these aspects.

There is one more aspect to all this.  As the industry and it’s regulators puzzle out how to manage the phone identity problem they are also puzzling out the extent to which the phone can play a role in the overall identity problem.  This is a reasonably critical point of control around the question of how we license anonymity going forward.

Get 40% more done, keep it secret

Wow!  This a wonderfully counter intuitive bit of social science!

Imagine that you would like to be sword swallower.  In service of achieving that goal  you set out to accumulate assorted accouterments: a sword, some books on sword swallowing, you study your vocabulary, you watch some videos, you take a course.  Each of these moves you closer to your goal, and slowly you begin to think of your self as actually a sword swallower.

Or imagine you want to be a small businessman.  You print up some business cards.  You pick a name for your business.  You register with the town, open a bank account. You buy a suit and start wearing it.  Again each of these is a step toward constructing your new identity.

Wait!  Printing up business cards doesn’t make you a small businessman.  Owning a sword you intend to swallow does not a sword swallower make.  Intention is a far cry from being.  But, people get confused and questions arise.  How often to we declare success based only on our good intentions?  Do we confuse the means with the end?  Of course we do.  And, while the worse case delusions are obvious – a good costume doesn’t make yo a superhero – in most cases the lines are quite fuzzy.

What kicked off that musing was this wonderful article reporting four studies reported in Psychology Science: “When Intentions go Public” (pdf).  I was interested in this paper because I’m interested in privacy.  What happens if I show other people that sword I’ve bought?  What happens when students sign one of those honor codes?  What happens when a hacker publicly reveals some source code he’s working on.  Does it help?  Are we more or less likely to get a sword-swallower, an honorable student, or a open source contributor? 

Obviously, we think that public revealing strengthens identity.  We certainly wouldn’t be asking students to sign honor codes if we thought otherwise.  But what if!  What if it undermines their aspirations to be honorable people!  I was already suspicious because of story we tell for why these things must work.  I.e. that this public revealing raises the stakes, that it puts our reputation at risk.  If everybody knows we have started a small business or taken up sword swallowing then we risk embarrassment when down the road we have to admit it all was a sham.  But I have my doubts about that, since I doubt that stakes is an effective means to controlling behavior.

So here is the surprise.  These studies suggest that public revealing of our intentions undermines our follow through.  These studies are all very simple.  Let’s look at one.  They get a group of students who really want to become psychologists and having them filled out a survey.  On the last page they ask them to write down what the intend to study next week in service of their goal.  The subjects are randomly split into two groups public, and private.  The kids in the private group are told that intend-to-study question was included by mistake, the experimenter tears it off and throws it away.  For the public group the experiment reads over the survey with the kid.  Nominally this is to check for errors, but in reality it just assures the kid knows that the experimenter knows of his study plans.

A week later they have the kids fill out a form to on which days they studied.  Those who’s intentions remained private studied 40% more!

What’s going on?  The theory suggests that we are keeping score on our progress toward achieving out goal.  Naturally we take credit for various steps along the way.  We give our self some credit for opening that business bank account, or buying that sword, or signing that honor code.  The bizarre bit is that these students apparently gave themselves some points toward achieving their goal as a consequence of having it be known to another person that they intended to work on toward the goal, and feeling that they were closer they didn’t work as hard.

This is worse than confusing the means with the end.  Worse than confusing having business cards with being a businessman.  In this case the just telling somebody your going to buy some business cards creates a sufficiently powerful fantasy that you are a businessman that you stop working on the project.

Now if this is all true it suggests that asking students into signing honor codes make them less likely to follow through on becoming honorable.  It suggests that asking your staff to outline their plan for the next week actually makes it less likely they will follow through on that plan.  It suggests that signing a contract undermines rather than increases the chance the parties will do the work agreed.  How weird is that!

It’s interesting that nobody I’ve told this story to finds this particularly surprising.  They all agree, revealing their intentions seems to undermine their follow through.  It’s all just too delightfully weird!

Presentation of Self

Below are a few screen shots I found thought provoking.

The first is taken from  a site that is somewhat  analogous  to Twitter,  Friend Feed.  Actually like a lot of sites they recently started chasing Twitter’s tail lights.  It has a lot more features.  Like Twitter you have a timeline or feed of items about your life and one of it’s features is that it let’s you pull your feeds from various sites where you have an account.  Thus if you participate in a forum on wood working you can pull your woodworking posts into your friend feed account.  The idea is this makes it easier for your friends to follow what your doing.  Here is part of their UI for setting that up.

I like that my identity scattered, like  Dorothy’s  Scarecrow friend, all over the place.  The person that posts to my posterious blog is a quite distinct from the one that posts here; and my Apache member self is different yet again.  But, inspite of that I’ve been toying with the puzzle of how these might be drawn together in various ways.  I’m currently letting Friend Feed pull some of my info and pass it thru to Twitter – after a while, for example, I decided that having my delicious bookmarks stream into Twitter was too revealing for my taste.  I am considering adding the feed from my worry tag  where I collect a articles intended to tickle our reptilian brain.

Today I stumbled upon somebody else who has tackled this problem of how to remix your own self using Yahoo pipes.

I’m slightly  embarrassed  not to have thought of doing that, I mean I already use Yahoo pipes for other things.  Yahoo pipes has been around for quite a while now.  I expected to see more of this kind of thing sooner.  There is a lot more waiting to happen.  For example, I still can’t download a toolkit that lets me pull my various financial accounts and aggregate them, though there are web sites that will do that for me.  The internet identity problem is still a mess, so private account data aggregation is still hard.  It’s no surprise that we see the progress with public data first, nor is it a surprise that we see aggregating web sites before solutions that run on the periphery.

I’ve been wondering if we won’t start to see some examples of this kind of thing that work in a tangled way across the various sites.  For example feeding your Twitter stream into Flickr, and vis versa; or creating an aggregated stream of activities at various  hobby sites (woodworking, baking, biking) which are then turned around back to those sites.

The UI problems here are daunting.  The two screen shots above make that clear.  When I first setup Friend Feed to post some of my stuff thru to Twitter I toggled something in the following screen and for a while all my posts to FriendFeed were appearing twice over on Twitter.

No doubt it’s obvious to other people what I did wrong.  But it’s fixed now, so that when I post this Friend Feed will notice, and tweet on my behalf.  Maybe later I can blog about that.

  No wait.

Tracking the powerless

Here’s another example of the natural progression of Moore’s law and privacy invading systems; where in the powerless (shipping containers, pets, cattle, prisoners, solders, women and children, shoppers, etc) pay the start up costs.  In this case we are tracking high school students.  I think I may need to touch up my model a bit.  Clearly the police states are also a fertile source of funding for innovation.


shoebanging.pngLauren Weinstein posts about being accused of being unhelpful.

But a message from another privacy personality was as polite as it was disturbing.

The sender noted pretty much essential agreement with my arguments regarding the lawsuit, but strongly asserted that my post was “most unhelpful” by “undermining” efforts to bring Google into advocacy group consultations.

Solidarity has it’s function, and for many groups it is their most substantive source of power.  When opposing such groups divide and conquer can be a particularly effective strategy.
Lauren counters with a few of the standard counter points.

For example he labeling the shunning as “ad hominem attacks.”  One of the puzzles of group dynamics is how solidarity is maintained.  How does the group signals to a participant that he’s out of bounds?  How does it even negotiate the consensus about it?  There are always boundary keepers that will volunteer to do this function, and it seems they often over shoot.  The phrase party disciplinarian comes to mind.  No doubt the most vitriolic of the reactions he got were offensive attacks on his person rather than the topic under discussion.  When the full bore shunning takes place, the triggering issues fall by the way side.

My point here isn’t to dig into the issue.  My interest is in the group dynamics.

In the internet identity design space the group dynamics is what interests me most.  The ebb and flow of each group’s positions.    One of these groups is the loose collective of folks who I think self identify as Privacy Advocates.  Lauren is  a founder of that group.  That he has triggered their immune system makes this an interesting case study.
Lauren points out the Google, the other party in this particular dispute, is a group too; like Soylent Green it’s made up of people.  Of course Google is not a group of people in anything like the sense that the Privacy Advocates are.  While there some weak status and hence hierarchy in the PA community it is primarilly an open system from the get go.  They are a loose collective of reasonably like minded folks.  No doubt that movement could use a bit more organizational muscle, but as rebels against power it’s a tough sell.
Google, on the other hand, is a corporation – the entire design pattern of corporation runs contrary to open systems.  Presumably it struggles against that tendency, but the defaults are what they are.  Just to take one particularly small example, Google Apps reveals the email of any user who signs up for an application to the application vendor – it’s a choice, and they had to make a choice.  Their scale (their power) means that choice point is highly leveraged.

Scale, as usual for me, is the interesting part.  The Internet Identity standards battle is one of the few standards wars that deserves the nearly full blown military metaphor.  Armies, some of these groups are best treated as armies. The landscape under dispute is extremely valuable and some groups on the field are entirely focused on winning an owning that real estate.

That’s a polarizing framing, eh?  Groups, like the privacy advocates, who’s power, solidarity, is grounded in being rebels against these powerful, often mindless, armies are likely to view chatting with the enemy as traitorous.  It’s ironic though.  Lauren in making the argument that the other guys are made up of people is in fact appealing to a core value of the privacy advocates, e.g. that the individuals trump the group when making any design choice in this space.

One of the puzzles in this standards space is how hard it is to negotiate with any of these groups.  Most of them are not able to cough up a representative with whom you can negotiate.  The privacy advocates are the worst case of that.  There are dozens of people in that group with stature; but if you expend a few man months of effort negotiating with one of the his agreement doesn’t buy you the assent of the larger collective.  The privacy advocates aren’t organized in a manner that delivers a throat through which they can speak.  While I think that’s a good thing it makes the standards bodies prefer to ignore them.

But the other groups are just as awful.  Some of these are rent seeking.  Some of fear for their existence.  Some of them are playing property rights games.  Some of them send diplomats to the negotiation with false authority, since their senior management is uninterested in this standard’s battle.

To me it is a key point that the negotiations, and the battle, is between these groups.  Oh sure, there is an dialog between individuals that is critically important – since that’s were the design that actually works will be discovered.  Understanding the nature, culture, and motivations of these groups is the key.    In each of these groups there are a few people who are coming to see that they must work on the problem at this level.

For those people the hardest part is negotiating with their own people.

Pink-themed Monitoring

Managing the selective revealing of fine grain private information marks one border in the Fantasy land of Internet identity design.  My preferred use case: Authorizing your barber to reveal your hair color to your bespoke tailor.  Far on the other end of the imaginary continent are systems that distill statistics from the incidental revealing.  Those are much easier to pull off, Amazon’s been doing it for years.  I think this may now be my favorite use case:

“Female CIOs spend 32% more time tracking federated identity transactions through pink-themed monitoring applications.”  — Paul Madson commenting on Wakoopa

The trick with the incidental revealing schemes it getting access to a large flux to eyeball.  Amazon and Google can do that by contemplating their own traffic logs.  Double click does it by negotiating their way into the click stream.  Sites like Delicious, Flickr, and Stylefeeder do it by getting users to reveal their preferences in exchange for helping them manage and share their collections.

Wakoopa provides self monitoring.  It records what applications your using.  Interesting how the intent of that can be framed in three ways: revealing your private data (as above), consumer empowerment (met other users), or as a self control tool.

Which ties this into the Breakdown of Will thread. Tools that help with self monitoring here for example are hardly different than what Wakoopa is doing.  Naturally they accumulate private data.  Naturally they involve the introduction of another party, since that party can enforce the control.

Account Linking

Many many years ago now I spent a while working on the Internet Identity management problem.  In fact I have a whole category with postings I did during that period.  Boy, talk about a tough problem!

Back in day one of the problems we worried about a lot went under the name “account linking.”  This problem comes up in lots of guises.  One most people are familiar with is the problem of removing duplicates from a mailing list.  Another is using social security numbers to link together account information.  Account linking is one of the corner stones of the privacy problem.  Account records are journals of somebodies’ behavior, but if you can’t link that record to them then the privacy question is muted.

As a result of that period I tend to be fastidious, some would say obsessive, about keeping some accounts hard to link.  I have a primary user name I use when I don’t care; but otherwise I have distinct user names, passwords, email addresses.  I justify this as a hobby, ongoing research in privacy and identity.  It’s a pain, but I seem to enjoy that exercise – whatever.

So it was with some amusement that I received an email from some valley startup that has offers a service for your inner stalker.    Of course they advertise it as a way to follow your friends, yeah right.  What they appear to have built is a scheme for doing account linking that is based on both the usual heuristic’s approaches (such as those seen in mailing list de-duping) and a modicum of social engineering.  The later part is clever, if vile, they get your “friends” to link your accounts.

The email I got told me that they and my “friends” had figured out four different accounts I have; flicker, digg, pandora, and stumbleupon.  Only one of these was interesting.  The account they had uncovered for me at digg was one of the ones where I thought I had made it resistant to casual linking.

Their email went on to say; and I love this in a eye-rolling way: “you would like to make these accounts private, please change the privacy settings on the original network and Spokeo will update its search results to reflect your changes.”

So I head off to Digg to see if I can see what I missed.  Digg has a complex page of privacy settings, it’s one of dozens of pages in their account management UI.  At the bottom of that page is a toggle for advanced settings.  Inside that is a toggle to disable finding me using my email address.  I hadn’t set that.  So I’d guess is that the stalker service is polling every email address they harvest to discover digg accounts.  Digg and I slipped up, but at least we were trying.

Did I mention that this problem is hard?  I’ve grown increasingly doubtful we can solve this one.  But yeah, what choice do we have but to try?

Identity Hub Shutdown

Unsurprisingly all the driver’s licenses in the US, which are nominally issued by the states, are actually coordinated through a centralized hub.  We know because it broke.  I love puzzling out where these hubs are.  For example there is another one for medical information, that I gather is here in Boston.

I’d be very interested to know how much these hubs talk to each other.  I.e. how much the driver’s license data pool mixes with say the credit rating data pool.

It’s hypothetical, but seems like a safe bet that the breakdown was associated with the new year and probably an big risky upgrade required by the Real ID boondoggle.

Digital Footprints

The Pew center has printed up a 50 page report on their survey results regarding online privacy and how people perceive and act upon the issue.

It’s always fun to see the category names that get manufactured for these kinds of reports.  They have four:

  • Concerned and Careful
  • Worried by the Wayside
  • Confident Creatives
  • Unfazed and Inactive

I wonder what the flows between these categories look like.  If member of the category Unfazed and Inactive starts a blog does he then become a member of Concerned and Careful?
I’ll need to read it more carefully, skimming it I don’t see anything too surprising.  Which actually surprised me.  To a degree it’s hard to know what to make of the data.  Things are changing so fast.  Surely opinions about this fast moving landscape aren’t particularly solid.  In fact I’d say that most people opinions about online privacy are surprisingly random, including many folks who are quite deeply involved in the net.

These days I think the nature of public opinion about online privacy is up for grabs.