Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Thursday, October 16, 2003day link 

 Friends, Identity and Security
Robert Cringely has thought about better ways of proving one's identity, so people don't steal your stuff. Exerpts from the article:
"Knowing a Social Security number and a mother's maiden name is pretty much all it takes to loot a U.S. bank account, often without even knowing the number of that account. Yet the real question ought not to be, "Does this person know the right identifying information?" but, "Is this person really who they say they are?" ...

"What works against us is that we have a million years of societal and biological evolution based on the concept of small tribal groups, yet only a few centuries of urban life and less than two centuries of mass transit. One characteristic of tribes is that the members know each other. So when the lady at the bank recognizes you -- really recognizes you -- it decreases to almost zero percent the likelihood that somebody can come in the bank claiming to be you and steal all your money. This isn't some clever security design, but an artifact of tribal life. You don't resent the lady at the bank for knowing you. You are flattered that she does. You don't fear that because she knows you that you are more likely to be a crime victim. Just the opposite -- we feel safer because we are known. ...

"My system is based on a registry of friends because we all participate in virtual tribes that are geographically dispersed. Every person who wants to have credit, to make a big purchase, or to board a 747 has to have a list of 10 friends -- people who can vouch for their identity and know how to test it if needed. That takes us out of the realm of the mother's maiden name, replacing it with, "What was the nickname I called you in the fourth grade?"

I am Bob, and these are my 10 friends.

They don't even have to be friends -- just people who know you. You don't have to tell them they are on your list and you can change your list as often as you like.

Imagine an aerial view of this network of friends. It is so large it could only be analyzed by a big honking computer, but there is a great deal to be learned from that analysis. People could disappear and be noticed, perhaps to be found. Deadbeat dads could be tracked, as could sexual predators. Epidemics would ripple across the surface of the model, perhaps leading to targeted anticipatory preventive care, saving lives. Guys who buy enough fertilizer to blow up a Federal office building would stand out.

Now before you can say the words "Big Brother," remember that YOU choose your list of friends so they can be people from work, from school, from the tennis club, but perhaps not from your Communist cell or from your swingers club. You can keep private what you want to keep private because the big picture is what matters here.

The system would be tied together by phone, e-mail, and Internet messaging. Ultimately, it would come to function like a much larger version of eBay's feedback system which would result in subtle pressure toward more civil behavior -- something we don't have in any practical sense today.

Maybe this system wouldn't work. You tell me. But I know that what we have right now isn't working, and I am not sure it can be made to work. The only answer that makes sense to me is to hearken back to a simpler time when these crimes just didn't' happen. And it is only through clever application of technology that this can be done.
But when we try to scale this inherent security up to urban, regional, national, and international levels, it doesn't work. We either have to accept less security or impose an artificial system intended to emulate that lady at the bank. This emulation is at the heart of every security system everywhere, yet we don't think of it in these terms."
OK, he hasn't thought it all the way through, but he's got a big point.

And, as Britt and Doc note, it sounds a whole lot like what Xpertweb is addressing.

Really, most crime in the world can exist only because we're largely all strangers to each other, and we rely for security on numbers, keys, passwords, and similar abstract tokens, and on symbolic barriers, such as closed doors and windows. We rely on disjointed pieces of *data*, and on flimsy walls around things that need protection, instead of relying on people and the relations between them. We need to somehow bring back the security system of a tribe, while retaining the mobility of the modern world, and without inheriting the limiting social norms of a tribe. In a modern city burglars could come and empty one's appartment, even though the neighbors that one doesn't know are only a few meters away. In an oldfashioned tribe in a village, the burglars would not even have gotten past the city limits. Or everybody would know who they are.
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