Memetic engineering our identities

This blog post builds a little further on my ecological ideas about the state of digital identity, first presented at the AusCERT 2011 conference. I have submitted a fresh RSAC 2013 speaker proposal where I hope to show a much more fully developed memetic model.

The past twenty years has seen a great variety of identity methods and devices emerge in the digital marketplace. In parallel, Internet business in many sectors has developed under the existing metasystems of laws, sectoral regulations, commercial contracts, industry codes, and traditional risk management arrangements.

As with Darwin’s finches, the very variety of identity methods suggests an ecological explanation. It seems most likely that different methods have evolved in response to different environmental pressures.

The orthodox view today is that we are given a plurality of identities from the many organisations we do business with. Our bank account is thought to be an discrete identity, as is our employment, our studentship, our membership of a professional body, and our belonging to a social network. Identity federation seeks to take an identity out of its original context, and present it in another, so that we can strike up new relationships without having to repeat the enrolment processes. But in practice, established identities are brittle; they don’t bend easily to new uses unanticipated by their original issuers. Even superficially similar identities are not readily relied upon, because of the contractual fine print. Famously in Australia, one cannot open a fresh bank account on the basis of having an existing accout at another bank, even though their identification protocols are essentially identical, under the law. Similarly, government agencies have historically struggled to cross-recognise each other’s security clearances.

I have come to the conclusion that we have abstracted “identity” at too high a level. We need to drop down a level or two and make smarter use of how identities are constructed. It shouldn’t be hard to do; we have a lot of the conceptual apparatus already. In particular, one of the better definitions of digital identity holds that it is a set of assertions or claims [Ref:The Laws of Identity]. Instead of federating rolled-up high level identities, we would have an easier time federating selected assertions.

Now, generalising beyond the claims and assertions, consider that each digital identity is built from a broad ensemble of discrete technological and procedural traits, spanning such matters as security techniques, registration processes, activation processes, identity proofing requirements (which are regulated in some industries like banking and the healthcare professions), user interface, algorithms, key lengths, liability arrangements, and so on. These traits together with the overt identity assertions — like date of birth, home address and social security number — can be seen as memes: heritable units of business and technological “culture”.

The ecological frame leads us to ask: where did these traits come from? What forces acted upon the constituent identity memes to create the forms we see today? Well, we can see that different selection pressures operate in different business environments, and that memes evolve over time in response. Example of selection pressures include fraud, privacy (with distinct pressures to both strengthen and weaken privacy playing out before our eyes), convenience, accessibility, regulations (like Basel II, banking KYC rules, medical credentialing rules, and HSPD-12), professional standards, and new business models like branch-less banking and associated Electronic Verification of Identity. Each of these factors shift over time, usually moving in and out of equilibrium with other forces, and the memes shift too. Successful memes — where success means that some characteristic like key length or number of authentication factors has proven effective in reducing risk — are passed on to successive generations of identity solution. The result is that at any time, the ensemble of traits that make up an “identity” in a certain context represents the most efficient way to manage misidentification risks.

The “memome” of any given rolled-up identity — like a banking relationship for instance — is built from all sorts of ways doing things, as illustrated. We can have different ways of registering new banking customers, checking their bona fides, storing their IDs, and activating their authenticators. Over time, these component memes develop in different ways, usually gradually, as the business environment changes, but sometimes in sudden step-changes when the environment is occasionally disrupted by e.g. a presidential security directive, or a w business model like branch-less banking. And as with real genomes, identity memes interact, changing how they are expressed, even switching each other on and off.

As they say, things are the way they are because they got that way.

I reckon before we try to make identities work across contexts they were not originally intended for, we need to first understand the evolutionary back stories for each of the identity memes, and the forces that shaped them to fit certain niches in business ecosystems. Then we may be able to literally do memetic engineering to adapt a core set of relationships to new business settings.

The next step is to rigorously document some of the back stories, and to see if the “phylomemetics” really hangs together.