An improved frame for understanding Digital Identity

I’ve always been uneasy about the term “ecosystem” being coopted when what is really meant is “marketplace”. There’s nothing wrong with marketplaces! They are where we technologists study problems and customer needs, launch our solutions, and jockey for share. The suddenly-orthodox “Identity Ecosystem” as expressed in the NSTIC is an elaborate IT architecture, that defines specific roles for users, identity providers, relying parties and other players. And the proposed system is not yet complete; many commentators have anticipated that NSTIC may necessitate new legislation to allocate liability.

So it’s really not an “ecosystem”. True ecosystems evolve; they are not designed. If NSTIC isn’t even complete, then badging it an “ecosystem” seems more marketing than ecology; it’s an effort to raise NSTIC as a policy initiative above the hurly burly of competitive IT.

My unease about “ecosystem” got me thinking about ecology, and whether genuine ecological thinking could be useful to analyse the digital identity environment. I believe there is potential here for a new and more powerful way to frame the identity problem.

We are surrounded by mature business ecosystems, in which different sectors and communities-of-interest, large and small, have established their own specific arrangements for managing risk. A special part of risk management is the way in which customers, users, members or business partners are identified. There is almost always a formal protocol by which an individual joins one of these communities-of-interest; that is, when they join a company, qualify for a professional qualification, or open a credit account. Some of these registration protocols are set freely by employers, merchants, associations and the like; others have a legislated element, in regulated industries like aviation, healthcare and finance; and in some cases registration is almost trivial, as when you sign up to a blog site. The conventions, rules, professional charters, contracts, laws and regulations that govern how people do business in different contexts are types of memes. They have evolved in different contexts to minimise risk, and have literally been passed on from one generation to another.

As business environments change, risk management rules in response change too. And so registration processes are subject to natural selection. An ecological treatment of identity recognises that “selection pressures” act on those rules. For instance, to deal with increasing money laundering and terrorist financing, many prudential regulators have tightened the requirements for account opening. To deal with ID theft and account takeover, banks have augmented their account numbers with Two Factor Authentication. The US government’s PIV-I rules for employees and contractors were a response to Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-12. Cell phone operators and airlines likewise now require extra proof of ID. Medical malpractice in various places has led hospitals to tighten their background checks on new staff.

It’s natural and valuable, up to a point, to describe “identities” being provided to people acting in these different contexts. This abstraction is central to the Laws of Identity. Unfortunately the word identity is suggestive of a sort of magic property that can be taken out of one context and used in another. So despite the careful framing of the Laws of Identity, it seems that people still carry around a somewhat utopian idea of digital identity, and a tacit belief in the possibility of a universal digital passport (or at least a greatly reduced number of personal IDs). I have argued elsewhere that the passport is actually implausible. If I am right about that, then what is sorely needed next is a better frame for understanding digital identity, a perspective that helps people stay away of the dangerous temptation of a single passport, and to understand that a plurality of identities is the natural state of being.

All modern identity thinking recognises that digital identities are context dependent. Yet it seems that federated identity projects have repeatedly underestimated the strength of that dependence. The federated identity movement is based on an optimism that we can change context for the IDs we have now, and still preserve some recognisable and reusable core identity. Or alternatively, create a new smaller set of IDs that will be useful for transacting with a superset of services. Such “interoperability” has only been demonstrated to date in near-trivial use cases like logging onto blog sites with unverified OpenIDs, or Facebook or Twitter handles. More sophisticated re-use of identities across context – such as the Australian banking sector’s ill-fated Trust Centre project – have foundered, even when there is pre-existing common ground in identification protocols.

The greatest challenge in federated identity is getting service and identity providers that are accustomed to operating in their own silos, to accept risks arising from identification and/or authentication performed on/by their members in other silos. This is where the term “identity” can be distracting. It is important to remember that the “identities” issued by banks, government agencies, universities, cell phone companies, merchants, social networks and blog sites are really proxies for the arrangements to which members have signed up.

This is why identity is so very context dependent, and so why some identities are so tricky to federate.

If we think ecologically, then a better word for the “context” that an identity operates in may be niche. This term properly evokes the tight evolved fit between an identity and the setting in which it is meaningful. In most cases, if we want to understand the natural history of identities, we can look to the existing business ecosystem from where they came. The environmental conditions that shaped the particular identities issued by banks, credit card companies, employers, governments, professional bodies etc. are not fundamentally changed by the Internet. As such, we should expect that when these identities transition from real world to digital, their properties – especially their “interoperability” and liability arrangements — cannot change a great deal. It is only the pure cyber identities like blogger names, OSN handles and gaming avatars that are highly malleable, because their environmental niches are not so specific.

As an aside, noting how they spread far and wide, and too quickly for us to predict the impacts, maybe it’s accurate to liken OpenID and Facebook Connect to weeds!

A lot more work needs to be done on this ecological frame, but I’m thinking we need a new name, distinct from “federated” identity. It seems to me that most business, whether it be online or off, turns on Evolved Identities. If we appreciate the natural history of identities as having evolved, then we should have more success with digital identity. It will become clearer which identities can federate easily, and which cannot, because of their roots in real world business ecosystems.

Taking a digital identity (like a cell phone account) out of its natural niche and hoping it will interoperate in another niche (like banking) can be compared to taking a tropical salt water fish and dropping it into a fresh water tank. If NSTIC is an ecosystem, it is artificial. As such it may be as fragile as an exotic botanic garden or tropical aquarium. I fear that full blown federated identity systems are going to need constant care and intervention to save them from collapse.