UCID Live Conference Review: Herding Cats over Iron Bridges at IDESG

Peter Brown, Chair of the U.S. National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC’s) Identity Ecosystem Steering Group (IDESG) Management Council delivered the User-Centric Identity (UCID) Live Conference keynote last Tuesday in Washington, DC. In this role, he was standing in for a government speaker who was sidelined in the shutdown of 2013. In general, this Smart Card Alliance sub-conference was in a bit of disarray due to the shutdown because a number of government speakers and attendees couldn’t make it, but those of us in the private sector economy made a brave effort to keep it going, and the conference was a worthwhile event for all concerned.

Like Many ID Systems, the World’s First Iron Bridge was Built Using Wooden Bridge Engineering
In the keynote, Brown said that because the stakeholders in national identity constitute such a wide-ranging group, he must often speak in metaphors. The metaphor for this presentation was the English Iron Bridge. This bridge, built starting in 1779 to cross the River Severn in Shropshire, England was the first arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron. Knowing little about bridge engineering I’ll have to take Brown’s word that its builders made it just like a wooden bridge, using a lot of unnecessary iron supporting substructure.
Trust, Brown said, is essential and contextual in the physical world. Digital trust is but a poor reflection, a fraction of it is real world counterpart. Digital trust must occupy a sweet spot between what is technically feasible, what is politically desirable and what is publicly acceptable. In making those compromises, we could end up using templates from the past in the personal data ecosystem (PDE). Often, we’re not treating bits right, and we’re not treating people right. 
  • Since bits are fungible, copies are as good as orginals, but we still have archaic language (as in when “electronic signatures” are referenced in law)
  • High technology is the only industry apart from illegal drugs that calls its customers “users” 

NSTIC – signed by the President in 2011 as part of the Administration’s Cyberspace Policy Review called for building a identity management vision and strategy to improve the security and convenience of sensitive online transactions and enhance privacy. Basically, NSTIC is the most recent evolution of the U.S. not having a National Identity Card. 

Instead, the Government is trying to facilitate interoperability and trust through public-private sector collaboration involving an extremely diverse array of government (Federal, state, local and tribal) and private (commercial, non-profit and individual players involving a plethora of industries, causes and concerns). As one of the facilitators, Brown observes that “herding cats would be comparatively easy, at least they’re all the same species! Often you can’t even get such a range of stakeholders to agree on same principles.”

The concern is that “in the PDE we have plenty of people claiming to have the solution but few that understand the problem.” We could be building a new “iron bridge.” This, he observed is a reflection on the complexity of the space as well as the diversity of stakeholders. “We have a window of opportunity to find sweet spot, but we keep getting thrown curve balls like Snowden and Federal cutbacks.”

Brown said there’s “studies that show the difference between getting online trust right versus getting it wrong is worth $1 trillion over next 20 years.” (I believe him – heck, in health care alone…) “We have to make the existing identity ecosystem better, encourage good practices, leverage trust frameworks and encourage interoperability among them.” 

Yet how different trust frameworks could work raises a bunch of political and economic questions: what’s the  model? What externalities are we giving up? “Unfortunately [when the big players like Facebook and Google make the decisions] we (individuals) aren’t at the table in these discussions. We’re on the table, we’re part of the meal!” 

How,” Brown asked, “can we take a more active role in a value network where their participation has a value that they can trade in the network?” He proposed the answer to this question is to get involved in IDESG, and points to an web site for more info about how to get involved.



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