[Dave Birch] There’s something about Reed’s Law, the rise of social networking and community that tells us some profound truths about the future of identity. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is, and therefore what those truths are. Looking at the social networking stories in the news, they mostly seem to be about a new kind of moral panic. You know the kind of thing, social network sites are increasingly juicy targets for computer hackers and so on. As Forum friend Peter Cochrane observed in his always-worth-reading blog at silicon.com, the media seems to have a downer on social networking because of its implications for data privacy. Yes, Facebook is the latest TTCAWKI (threat to civilisation as we know it). Or it is to those people who signed up with their real names.

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This is not to say that there aren’t some really interesting — and really nasty — issues that we have to confront on the border between real and virtual social networks. In the U.K., for example, there have been some real probems with what the media (insanely) label as “happy slapping”: kids beating people up and recording themselves doing it. The BBC had a show about this, noting that as a kid is bad enough getting your head kicked in by psychopaths, but it’s even worse knowing that everyone is watching on YouTube or (and even I was shocked to read this) specialist violence video sites. I have absolutely no clue what to do about this. I suppose this is “a sad flip-side to digital communities and user-generated content” but I wonder if any technological innovation has ever managed to suppress. I did wonder, however, how it is that committing a crime and then posting conclusive evidence of your guilt is bad for society overall? Doesn’t it make it easier for the police to catch them?

I did notice that on Open Social Web there is a “bill of rights” for social network users. It says that people have the right to

  • Ownership of their own personal information, including: their own profile data and the list of people they are connected to;
  • Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others;
  • Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites.
  • Syndicate their own stream of activity outside the site;
  • Discover who else they know is also on their site.

These rights seem quite reasonable, provided everyone behaves themselves but they don’t obviously help to stop the miscreants. But are things like the list of people you are connected to “your” information? Surely it’s “their” information too. And surely none of these rights can be granted unless their is some sort of pervasive persistent virtual identity management scheme in operation: if I’m chatting with my friend, I’d like to know that it really is my friend.

We built a demonstration system like this for a client some years ago. When you chose your virtual identity, you got your buddy list (different buddy lists for each identity) and when you chatted with one of these buddys, all communications with encrypted and digitally-signed. It was invisible to the end users (except that the digital identities were stored on smart cards, so without your smart card you couldn’t read any of your chats) but ensured privacy and authenticity. It was simple and intuitive as well. Now, if you could only post to YouTube with a virtual identity of this kind, I’d be much more comfortable about letting my kids browse it.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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