Several years ago I was the victim of a fairly vicious case of identity theft. Vicious may be a strong word to use in connection with identity theft, but I feel it fits here, as the perpetrator went the extra mile: as bizarre as it sounds, he legally changed his name to Scott Burnham, and then began to absorb my personal data and identity as his own.
If you think it’s difficult when someone gets ahold of your bank statement from your trash or copies your passport information at a hotel, try having someone claim to be you, armed with legal documents showing that, actually, he is you… but he’s not. It’s not a lot of fun.
As online privacy issues appear in the news daily, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a huge opportunity for an online service which anchors our identities securely within a trusted framework. Facebook had that chance, but its callous drive towards the commercialisation of our personal information and identities quickly kicks the supports out from beneath an allusion of trust. In other words:
When hundreds of millions of people hand you their personal data, the business opportunity is to protect it, not pimp it.
The latest episode of the podcast This Week In Google nailed it when co-host Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine identified a fundamental problem when our identity becomes more of a commercial resource for another company than our own property. In order to maintain privacy over aspects of our identity we don’t want commercialised, we have to exclude or obfuscate our personal information, which in turn erodes the larger framework of our online identity, lowering trust and truth. As Jarvis says:
“The more our identity becomes Facebook’s property, the more we feel free to lie about it. The more that the canonical ‘me’ becomes my property, the more truthful I’m going to be about it. We have to own our own identities, and when we do, that will maintain the highest value possible … [the opportunity] starts with services that help you maintain your own identity. That give you control. The reality of where we are right now is that our identities are what you find online about us. So how can I manage that?”
The seasoned netizen will respond that there are an array of services out there that allow you to manage your online identity. There are, and I use most of them daily. But they are reactive by nature, with most offering you the chance to track what is being said about you elsewhere on web. We need more services to control what is, as Jarvis says, canonical information about ourselves, and what is not, without having to worry about how our identity is being monetised.
Google Profiles has a foot in the door there, but they’re not leveraging it actively, at least not yet. And while many give Google a higher trust index than other online services (due largely to their embrace of The Data Liberation Front and open standards), the recent uproar over Google Buzz privacy holes show just how fragile trust can be when dealing with our online identities.
Regardless of the media or the medium, one thing never changes: the killer app is always trust. It is only recently that we have had to debate the exchange of our trust and identity for the sake of connecting with other people, which is a perverse exchange. Identity should never be treated as a monetised platform, and trust is a commodity that holds limitless value. And there’s the window of opportunity.
For those who want to dig further into the issue, Jeff Jarvis goes deeper into some of these ideas on his blog here.