Over on the Digital Money Blog we decided to mark the launch of the Single European Payments Area (SEPA) by making a celebratory SEPA Credit Transfer (SCT) to a friend in the Netherlands. In order to do this, we had to obtain his bank account details: his IBAN. Now I think that in many circumstances, people will be reluctant to give this sort of information out, lest they suffer a Jeremy Clarkson-style incursion. So why can’t the bank give me a pseudonym to use in transactions: if someone wants to send me money, they can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, or whatever. I don’t mind giving out this pseudonym, since only the banks knows that it’s mean. So when an SCT for leadbelly arrives, the money can be routed to my account. I can publish the pseudonym on my web page if I want, just as I can happily give out my PayPal address, since only I know that it’s mine (well, PayPal know as well, of course).
Another example comes from the retail space. A retailer wants me to give him my mobile phone number so that he can let me know when a relevant special offer is on. I want to know that the relevant special offer is on. But I’m not giving my mobile phone number to a retailer: I don’t want them ringing me up until Kingdom Come. I want control over the link between the retailer and me. Once again, why doesn’t the phone company allow me to create arbitrary pseudonyms, so I can tell the retailer that I’m leadbelly@O2: the retailer (and any else) can text to leadbelly@O2 and the O2 SMS centre will route it to the correct phone number. If I don’t want to do business any more, I can just junk the pseudonym.
Hey presto, an addressing scheme that provides both convenience and privacy.
The idea that using a pseudonym means that you are "up to something" is just plain wrong. As has been confirmed by the wise decision of the German authorities to build online pseudonyms into their national ID card:
The central idea is that the individual card number is used to generate a pseudonym that cannot be reconverted mathematically into the original card number. This pseudonym could then be used to register at, for example, eBay, or any other web service that requires personal identification.[From E-Health Europe :: German ID card to allow pseudonyms]
The idea that using a pseudonym means that you are "up to something" is just plain wrong, although (naturally) sometimes they are used for less-than-wholesome purposes. There was story about pseudonyms on Emergent Chaoss recently. It concerned the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, who posted on the Yahoo! Finance board for Whole Foods under the pseudonym Rahodeb, which is an anagram of Mackey’s wife’s given name. And there are cases of lobbyists posting on discussion boards using pseudonyms so that they don’t reveal they are employees of a company under discussion. But these, I think, are tangential issues (and if you banned pseudonyms then people would just pay students to post for them, or whatever): pseudonyms provide a simple and straightforward way to partition and protect identities.
What’s more, for pseudonyms to have a value (or, at least, a peg to hang reputational value on to) then they need to be underwritten by trusted institutions. If I come to your site presenting a pseudonym that is underwritten by my bank (so that you know that my bank knows who I am) then you will be comfortable allowing me in even though you don’t know who I am — if anything goes wrong, you can always ask the bank.
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]