Do you trust who I am?

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Philip Zimmermann’s Pretty Good Privacy was a critical platform for educating the world on secure communication. PGP encryption is so good, that even the most determined agencies can essentially go pound sand–it is pretty good privacy to be humble, not to disclaim. An impressive concept with PGP is the public and distributed nature of key management. Often, Public Key Encryption systems rely upon Public Key Infrastructures where there is a central authority. The genius of Zimmermann is in the notion that keys have an associated trust level. That your personal key can be trusted by you, implicitly. Your friend’s key, depending on how you came into position may have a high level of trust associated with it, that this key is in fact his or hers. Furthermore, you can sign other people’s keys, an endorsement of the validity of that key. You see, public keys are what the system uses to encrypt secure messages that only the key holder knows how to decrypt using their private key. By introducing the notion of trust and the digital signing of keys, Zimmermann started what has to be seen as an early social web–a social graph of the people you could not only securely exchange email with but a social confidence of the key itself and by extension the individual’s digital identity.

In A Crowd of One: The future of individual identity, John Henry Clippinger starts working through how much society defines good and bad. Simply put, one person’s radical is another person’s hero. The examples are uncanny and for each of us there is one with which to resonate. If you make it past the prologue and the bulk of chapter one, you will be delighted by page just prior to chapter two, which lays out where you hoped the book would go. There are heavy-eye moments in chapter one where you think Clippinger is too smart for you and his messages are going to be far too academic to appreciate–page 24 turns it around.

Clippinger talks about how biological evolution is particularly challenging in that generations of “sexual selection and reproduction” need to pass to accomplish the natural order. Societal evolution on the other hand can happen quickly and most participants in the modern world can attest, things they are a changin’.

Furthermore, it will become possible to have governance by algorithm—that is, have computer-based rules assign reputation scores, rate the performance of members of a social network, identify and expel free riders, and maintain the requisite checks and balances between competing interests.

We’re largely digital, we just haven’t appreciated what it can tell us about ourselves.

Both quotes from A Crowd of One, Page 24

Participation is often a key aspect of reputation in online venues where almost everyone is anonymous. An active forum participant rises through the ranks having established a history and dedication among participants accruing digital karma. E-Bay and Amazon have similar reputation models where the number of successful interactions connotes some degree of comfort in interacting with strangers or new products. Other social spaces like FaceBook display social graphs, implicit endorsements. Almost all of these cases either require a human to judge the content or trust in very week measures of past interaction. Regardless, as participants we leave an endless trail of social data, something Google is more than happy to store forever and bring together. Our infatuation with the social graph and the affiliation with social spaces is rooted in the quest to see our own reflection. Other people help manifest our identity (or identities) and in reflecting on our connection, attitudes and culture we participate in societal evolution. We are largely digital and while we have not yet appreciated how much of our web teaches us, we are far more ignorant of what it could tell us that we cannot see or do not know.

Some cultures have teachings of how painfully alone we are as beings, that we are very much isolated, despite our unquenchable desire to connect with others. As children moving through years four to six, we develop self-consciousness at a very specific point in time – at one point it is another child in the mirror and then suddenly we know it is us. Humans are unaware of themselves and then once aware struggle to manage their identity. We construct much of our reality as a means for creating our identity and look to others to reflect and locate how far we have come. In a digital world where the social network is out in the open, how does a more sophisticated notion of trust, identity and security come about? Is it the culmination of all I do online? Who is I? Which email address? Which identity? How many social connections do I need before I am trusted? At what cost do we ascertain identity?

Zimmermann was on to something–decentralizing authority, driving validation into the network and ensuring confidentiality. Clippinger brings us full circle, showing us that our digital fingerprints and the systems that judge us will be equal actors in constructing who we are. If the rest of this book is as good, we are in for a treat!