Thursday, August 4, 2011

Let's have one true identity. Or several.

It's been discussed ad nauseum, but something just occurred to me. (Warning: there will be an FCC disclosure before the end of this post. Yes, it's that bad.)

As you may have heard, Google would prefer that you use your true identity on Google+ and selected other Google services.

And as you probably know, Facebook would also prefer that you use your true identity on its service.

But what if the two identities are different?

There are numerous ways in which this could happen. One example - I may go to a California court and legally change my name from John Bredehoft to Ebenezer Hodson. I then go to Facebook, producing volumes of documentation to prove that I am now truly Ebenezer Hodson, but it ends up being so much of a hassle that I don't bother to do the same with Google.

In addition, since Google and Facebook are separate private entities, each could set up its own procedure for verifying identity. And different governments could do the same thing. (I'd be willing to bet that certain government jurisdictions would be reluctant to allow me to change my name to "Osama," while other government jurisdictions would be all for it.)

Note that biometrics (the dreaded disclosure: I am an employee of a biometrics system manufacturer) doesn't necessarily solve this particular issue. Even if biometrics identifies exactly who you are, it does not dictate what you are to be called.

We get assigned identities all the time, by thousands upon thousands of public and private agencies. Our employers alone have several different identities for us - one for payroll, one for information system access, one for medical benefits, etc. Now add every state, county, and city in which you have resided; every Federal government agency who deals with you; and all of the libraries, grocery stores, and other entities who keep files on you.

Which of those hundreds of identities is the real you? And if some of these records (presumably not all of them) are linked by a Social Security Number provided by the U.S. Government, then how do we know that SSN is legit?

And what about the multiplicity of true identities? You can be John Jacob Jones on Google, John J Jones on Facebook, John J. Jones (note the difference?) on MySpace, J. J. Jones on one MasterCard, J. Jacob Jones on another MasterCard, and therefore multiply your true identities to your heart's content.

And don't forget misspellings. Decades ago, one retailer rendered my last name as Bredechopt. Some websites still list me as a Motorola employee. At least one website has an incorrect city of residence for me.

And don't forget people with similar names. I've lived in Virginia, but never in Norfolk. Or Vienna. Or Colorado.

So if Google ends up establishing "true" identities for users of Google+ ... exactly what does that mean? And will Google's customers (its advertisers) care?
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