Identity and intent — The next big thing for tech startups

The balance between identity and privacy is easier and harder than you think. The biggest challenge is taking the leap of faith of good intentions.

Internet Identity

Silverisdead | Creative Commons via Flickr

Defrag kicked off this week with a strong first-day theme: identity in the digital age. Leading off was a talk by R. Ray Wang, of Constellation Research, who spoke about his “Identify Manifesto” that set the tone for the day.

Identity, and the dependent concept, privacy, is especially relevant today, considering Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA documents and deep conversations in the advertising world about Mozilla’s decision to block 3rd-party tracking cookies from upcoming Firefox releases. Wang, however, reframed the discussion, away from simply a negative discussion using terms like invasion, spying, or breach, toward a conversation about identity, intent, reputation, and “digital exhaust.”

While presenting his “Identity Manifesto,” he explained identity in terms of a nuanced balancing act between privacy and convenience. Who hasn’t used Facebook- or Google-provided OAuth to sign into a web service. Using OAuth is a convenience for the user.

Most users, however, don’t consider the trade being made. Using Facebook as an OAuth provider allows Facebook to collect a myriad of data-points about a user’s habits. This then allows Facebook to increase the value of the user’s attention — to make more money displaying advertising to that user.

Wang, however, sees identity as a seminal issue for the next generation of Internet-based technologies. The status quo of identity is fairly limited. OAuth provides a limited trade-off, but there exist a wide range of players. Advertising is tracked and targeting by a large number of competing companies. Users give off a lot of digital exhaust as they travel the web, and much of the information is fragmented.

“Most people look at it as security or standards, or a way to connect, or standards. But what we’re talking about is really identity in the business context — our ability to interact. Who do we interact with? How do we interact? Where do we interact? We have to look at identity a lot more broadly. Anything from a social log-in to an access card to a payment mechanism to our phone with a little thumb reader.”

A wide range of nascent business models depend, he argues, on getting this, broadly defined, identity right. From localized advertising to augmented reality, payment processing to guest services, providing a quality product depends on quality identity.

Identity, in turn, depends on understanding that a user is not interested in visiting Dress Barn simply because the user is near one, but that the user might be interested because she shopped at Victoria’s Secret earlier in the day. That requires an understanding of intent, which is easy to get wrong.

Wang suggests a layering of information. “You are a stereotypical guy. You don’t want to see any of the stores that are flower shops. You just want to see sports bars, and maybe banks.”

Getting it right facilitates an experience that delights the user. Getting it wrong can just be creepy. Whether a user sees ads for flights to Boston in all subsequent pages, after visiting to check prices for travel, or TiVo’s strange recording behavior, improperly interpreted signals, or inappropriate timing can be intrusive.

“Take facial recognition. When you walk in the store, we know you are someone who has shopped with us before. It’s happening already. British Airways did something like that. It freaked out all their passengers because they weren’t expecting to be greeted.”

Good identity also needs the ability to do things anonymously. In your web browser, you can clear your cookies, or go Incognito — but this is an imperfect solution, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation is demonstrating with its Panopticlick Project, which demonstrates that trackers have the ability to uniquely identify your web browser without cookies, or to attach action to your identity, even when you wish to prevent it.

Rami Essaid, CEO and Co-Founder of Distil Networks, during his presentation Monday at the conference explained that the largest problem in the arena of activity tracking is that most of it is being done by agents unwilling to discuss their tactics or their uses of the data they collect. “We need to have an open conversation, and that conversation needs to center around transparency.”

Wang agrees. “We wouldn’t need trust if we had full transparency,” he says, aware of the hyperbole.

Without faith in the intentions and methods of the creators of online identity, it will be difficult to truly jump into a world of well designed, individually tailored Internet experiences. But, with the necessary conversation and transparency, users may be encouraged to embrace digital identity, and enable increased signal-to-noise from application and service providers, to their benefit.

“Privacy is not dead,” Wang argues. “It will be redefined by trusted, transparent identity and reputation.”