Digital Identity Management
Scott C. Lemon, Exploring Identity in the Internet Age


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Sunday, November 21, 2004

In the beginning, there was ... well ... what was there? This is the first of several posts that I am going to write, that outline some of my thinking and research into digital identity. So to get things going:
I posit that we humans do not have any inherent identity.
What? Are you kidding? Of course I have identity! Well ... like what? Age? Height? Salary? Credit Information? The key is to recognize that none of these are inherent to you ... they are all given to you by outside entities. All of them.

If we carefully examine the definition of "identity" we'll see that the roots of the word is from Latin:
Etymology: Middle French identité, from Late Latin identitat-, identitas, probably from Latin identidem repeatedly, contraction of idem et idem, literally, same and same
1 a : sameness of essential or generic character in different instances b : sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing
Consider the possibility that "identity" is really a community saying that we are "the same as something else". Our height is the same as something we call "six feet". Our age is the same as something we call "40 years". Our salary is the same as something we call "$150,000". Identity becomes a completely relative thing. Relative to a community that we belong to. And identity is completely based on language.

To reinforce this, consider that all of your individual pieces of identity - all of your attributes - only exist within the context of the community that gave you the attribute. If you have a US Social Security number, it means nothing in the jungles of New Zealand. If you weigh 150 pounds., then it only means something in a community that understands what a pound is. And my credit history, or work history? Again, these are only valid in a community context that understands what these are, and that knows the entities that gave them to me. This is actually the basis for the "Second Axiom of Identity".

What is so important about this First Axiom? It is that we gather identity about ourselves throughout our lives. Our "identity" actually starts before we are born, since our parents and doctors begin the process of describing us and creating the "same as" stories. (e.g. he kicked alot, was our second, etc.) On top of that, our identity continues to grow even after we die. Our death certificate, the details of our funeral, and the results of our will. We might even get into a Hall of Fame, or gain other such tributes after death. We accumulate identity from before we are born, throughout our lives, and even after we die. And there are a lot of people and companies that want that accumulated information. What is interesting is that there is no software solution for a person to easily accumulate their identity.

Most efforts in digital identity management have taken the tack of controlling the dissemination of our identity ... but few have had a focus on how to accumulate our identity. When I was working on the digitalMe project at Novell, I realized that core to digital identity management is our own ability to accumulate our identity information as it is given to us. Only when we have accumulated it, can we choose who to share it with. Only when we accept that we have no inherent identity can we build the systems to accumulate it from scratch.

10:08:01 PM      

I like the direction that Kim is taking with his "Law's of Identity". I had started a list a while ago of my "Axioms of Identity" ... I'm going to dig them up and elaborate on them. They actually will dovetail nicely with what Kim is creating.

With his first law, Kim covers "The Owner Decides ..." which is common sense to those in the space. There are, however, some complexities to this scenario. I agree with it, but there are deep assumptions that we operate on top of ... many of which I would suggest are false. We just don't see it in everyday life.

I believe that if we look deeper into what "identity" is, and where it comes from, we are able to build much more powerful models to develop software around. If we operate from an incomplete model, we'll always end up dealing with inconsistancies ... and these are the indications of the incomplete model. The most important thing is to study and understand the language that we use ... all identity comes from communication. I love language and words ...

I'll see if I can post my "First Axiom of Identity" tonight ... I've got a couple of things going on, but the kids are almost in bed. ;-)

Also ... I like "The Owner Chooses" better than "The Owner Decides" ... purely from an empowerment perspective. If we look at the roots of the word "decide" we'll see that it really means "to cut off" ... to take a path by "cutting off" all others. To go in a direction after "killing off" all alternatives.

Choice is defined as "to select freely and after consideration" ... a much more empowering perspective ... IMHO. I know ... some will say nit-picking, however I believe in the power that language has over us ... and feel that we often limit ourselves using less powerful words. If you want to hear others in science talk about this ... go see the movie "What the BLEEP do we know!?"

P.S. I look forward to talking more with Dave Kearns about Identity and Persona. It seems to me that Persona is the "social facade" that we create ... the story that we have about ourselves. To me, Identity is more the "sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing". More on this in my Axioms ...

8:23:30 PM      

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