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cbrandtbuffalo (4462)

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Perl programmer at the University at Buffalo.
Tuesday August 09, 2005
12:01 PM

OSCON, Identity, Powell's

[ #26204 ]

There was a lot of talk this year at OSCON about Identity. There was even an excellent keynote about it that explained the issues in a very clear way, although I'm not so sure we have answers yet.

I was interested enough that I attended the talk later on LID (, which is a sort of attempt at Identity 1.5, halfway to a solution.

One evening, I made the obligatory trip to Powell's Books with Andy Lester and I picked up "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert Heinlein. I've read a bunch of his books, but never this one.

If you're still with me, I'll pull it all together now. The book is about a revolution on the Moon after Luna has been colonized. One of the key issues in a revolution is keeping your co-conspiritors safe. If the authorities bust a few people, you don't want then to ferret out the whole organization.

Well, this basically boils down to a problem of identity. A common solution to keeping the organization safe is to work with a cell system such that you only ever know a few people. You can't spill what you don't know. At the same time, the organizers need to be able to accurately identify people in the organization to pass information both ways.

Seems to me this is similar to the on-line identity problem, with a little bit higher stakes. The way they solve this problem in the book is with a super-computer named Mike (aka, Adam Selene and many other pseudonyms). This super-computer becomes sentient, so it can think and talk like a person. It also gains the ability to take on several identities and control the phone network. Mike can verify identity based on where a call is coming from, the tone of the caller's voice, and heart rate and breathing he can hear through the phone. Plus Mike has full access to all records since he is the main authority computer on Luna. So if all communication up and down are made through the phone network, Mike makes sure everyone is who they say they are.

How does this relate to our identity problems? I'm not sure yet, but it seems some combination of biometrics and access to other data could get us close to the same situation. The trick is to avoid allowing a single computer, or company, have full access to everything about us.

What I really want to know is how the OSCON organizers can arrange for all of these ideas come together from so many different sources. How did they know I'd get that book at Powell's? And how did they know I'd read it on the plane back? Maybe a sentient computer is already living at O'Reilly HQ?

I feel like I could write an episode of James Burke's Connections.

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