Global Constant
Steve Nay's ramblings

Kynetx and the spectrum of identity

This article was cross-posted on Kynetx Code (now defunct).

This week was the Kynetx Impact Conference 2.0, held in Sandy, Utah. I met a lot of cool people there, and I thoroughly enjoyed the intellectually stimulation of being in such close proximity to so many brilliant innovators.

One topic of particular interest was treated by Chad Engelgau from Acxiom Corporation: the spectrum of identity.

Chad argued that in order for the web to work, we need to have an identity continuum that places anonymity at one end and verified identity at the other, with room for one or more personas in between. In light of Facebook’s recent announcement of the Open Graph Protocol, this is an intriguing idea. Facebook would like to do away with anonymity and personalize everything. But that model is broken.

From Chad’s remarks, I’d like to construct a real-world analogy of Facebook’s new proposal:

Imagine you walk into a grocery store. You have to scan your government-issued ID card before they’ll let you through the door. Once they’re sure you are who you say you are, you’re granted access to the store and are given a cart. It knows what kinds of things you’re looking for (either ones you explicitly declared or ones that are relevant based on your demographics, etc.) Advertising all over the store is modified when your cart rolls by to offer products and services of interest to you. This can make it very easy (but potentially very annoying) to find the things you really want and may or may not speed up your shopping trip.

Such a grocery store would be simply absurd. If you frequent the store, you will know what is being sold and where it is located; you’ll know what you need to buy. Preserving your anonymity in a grocery store is the most efficient and the most relevant way to shop.

Now consider going to a bank to take out a loan for a new car you just purchased. If anyone could just walk in to the bank anonymously and obtain a loan, the banks would soon be in deep financial trouble. They have a need to know who you are and what your financial background is before they will offer you a loan. In this case, anonymity is absurd; a verified identity is necessary.

If the real world works this way–built around spectrum of identity–why shouldn’t the web?

If Facebook’s new method of personalizing sites by using your full, “verified” identity everywhere was ever intended to become mainstream, it is a broken method. It is simply not necessary.

Chad Engelgau postulated that users of the web ought to be able to browse anonymously but still get a personalized experience. In some situations, anonymity is best; in others, one or more personas that may or may not accurately represent the “real you.” And in a few situations (especially where financial transactions or sensitive data are involved), a verified identity is absolutely necessary.

This is where the power of Kynetx and context automation enter the picture.

With Kynetx, users can browse the web anonymously without the need for some intermediary (think Facebook) to store and disperse personal information about you. The user can instead give information about relevant pieces of her context and allow Kynetx apps to leverage that information. If I’m and I want to show my visitors relevant purchase suggestions, I only really need to know what they’re thinking about buying or what they like to buy from me. I don’t care what their email address is or who their Facebook friends are or whether they use Visa or MasterCard. We can figure out the relevant details later when I need to know more about the user’s identity (e.g., when the purchase is actually made).

Facebook wants to kill this spectrum of identity by doing away with anonymity. While that brings some benefits with it, the model is inherently broken. How do we fix it? Kynetx.

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