Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Your Identity, Your Library

Today, your identity on the Internet is essentially owned by the big email providers and social networks. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter - chances are you use one of these services to conveniently log into other services as YOU. You don't need to remember a new password for each service, and the service providers don't have to verify your "identity". What you gain in convenience, you lose in privacy, and that's turned out really well, hasn't it?

The "flow" you use to take advantage of this single sign-in is a "dance" that takes you from website to website and back to the site you're logging into. A similar dance occurs to secure access to resources licensed on you behalf by libraries, institutions, corporations, etc.. I wrote a bunch of articles about "RA21" (now rebranded as the vaguely NSFW "SeamlessAccess"), an effort spearheaded by STM publishers to improve the user experience of that dance. (It can be complicated and confusing because there are lots of potential dance partners!)

Henri Matisse, La danse (first version) 1909

These dance partners style themselves as "identity providers". That label makes me uncomfortable. Identity can't be something that can be stripped from you by on the whim of a megacorporation. Instead, internet identity should be woven from a web of relationships. These can be formed digitally or face-to-face, global or local, business or personal.

You'd have thunk that the whole identity-on-the-internet thing would have improved in the 13 years since that login dance was first rolled out. And you'd be almost right, because a new architecture for internet identity is now on the horizon. Made possible by many of the same technologies that are securing the internet and inflating the blockchain bubble, massively distributed and even "self-sovereign identity" are becoming real-ish.

These technologies will inevitably be applied to the access authorization problem. Access via distributed identity replaces the website-to-website dance with the presentation of some sort of signed credential. A service provider verifies the signature against the signer's public key. It's like showing a passport that can't be forged. A tricky bit is that the credential also needs to be checked against a list of revoked credentials. This would have been cumbersome even ten years ago, but distributed databases are now a mature technology, versions of which underpin the internet itself.

Interlinked with the concept of distributed identity is the notion that users of the web should be able to securely control their data, and that decisions about what a web site gets to know about you should not be delegated to advertising networks.

Unfortunately, we're not quite ready for distributed identity, in the sense that implementation for today's web would require users to install plugin software, which has its own set of usability, privacy and security issues. The ideal situation would be for some sort of standardized distributed identity and secure data management capability to be installed in browser software - Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.

There's a lot of work going on to make this happen.
  • ID2020 has put out an identity manifesto that starts with the declaration that "The ability to prove one’s identity is a fundamental and universal human right."
  • Tim Berners-Lee is leading the Solid Project, which let's you "move freely between services, reuse data across apps, connect with anyone, and select what you share precisely".
  • The W3C Verifiable Claims Working Group has published Technical Recommendations for "Verifiable Credential Use Cases and a "Verifiable Credential Data Model". They observe that "from educational records to payment account access, the next generation of web applications will authorize entities to perform actions based on rich sets of credentials issued by trusted parties."
  • The Sovrin Network is a "new standard for digital identity – designed to bring the trust, personal control, and ease-of-use of analog IDs – like driver’s licenses and ID cards – to the Internet."
  • Kaliya Young, Doc Searls and Phil Windley have been convening the Internet Identity Workshop twice a year since 2005 to create a community centered around internet identity. A glance at prior year proceedings gives a flavor of how much is happening in the field
The common thread here is that users, not unaccountable third parties, should be able to manage their identity on the internet, while at the same time creating a global chain of trust.

It seems to me that there's a last-mile problem with all these schemes. If identity is really a universal human right, how do we create a chain of trust that can include every human? That problem becomes a lot easier to solve if there were some sort of organization with a physical presence in communities all over, trusted by the community and by other organizations. A sort of institution experienced in managing information access and privacy, and devoted to the needs of all sorts of users.

In other words, what if "libraries" existed?

The federated authentications systems used by libraries today - Shibboleth, Athens, and related systems use a dance similar to what you do with Google or Facebook. It's a big step that moves your internet identity away from "surveillance capitalists" towards community institutions. But you still don't have control over what data your institution give away, as you will in the next-generation internet identity systems I describe here. (RA21 is no different from Shib or Athens in this respect.)

What might libraries do to prepare for the age of distributed identity? The first step is not about technology, it's about mission. I believe libraries should start to think of themselves as internet relationship providers for their communities. When I get access to a resource though my library, I won't be "logging in",  I'll be asserting a relationship with a library community, and the library will be standing behind me. Joining an identity federation is a good next step for libraries. But the library community needs to advocate for user identity as a basic human right and prepare their systems to support a future where no dancing is required.

Update 12/5/2019: revised last two paragraphs to be less mystifying.


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