Identity, not privacy
August 19, 2013  

Framing) is when you talk about a “death tax” instead of an “estate tax”, or say someone was “made redundant” instead of “laid off”. It’s a way of labeling something that changes how you feel about it, without changing the thing itself.

Framing is paramount in fields like security and privacy, which have a strong psychological component (the psychology of fear). Privacy advocates have done a poor job of framing: most people don’t care about “privacy”. The word doesn’t have any emotional resonance.

In the past few years I’ve seen a new framing for privacy that seems to have some legs: “creepy”. You know it’s good when people on both sides of the issue are using it. On the one hand, some people think it’s creepy that advertisers are tracking us, while others think that anyone who does not use Facebook must be a “creeper”.

We’re just a few weeks into the post-Snowden era, so it’s hard to be certain yet, but the “surveillance” framing also seems to have traction. I think “creepy” is more powerful than “surveillance”, but I bet “surveillance” gets used more by academic privacy researchers. It sounds more dignified, in keeping with how academics think of themselves.

I was reminded of another framing for privacy as I read this post by Tim Bray advocating federated identity systems (“Login with Google+ !”). The post got a hilarious shit ton of pushback from people who don’t want Google to know what apps they are using, or don’t want apps to take over their Google+ accounts and post things on their behalf.

What this illustrates is that control of identity is a central issue in privacy. I don’t mean identity in its technical sense, as Tim is using it. Rather, I mean the kind of identity you assume or project, as in twenty-something hipster from California, or life-long Yankees fan, or soccer mom.

Most of us have more than one identity that we have created for ourselves (a family identity, a work identity). We may want to keep our identities separate—this is a way of controlling what others think of us. Embarrassment is exactly about losing control of your identity: you feel embarrassment when something happens that changes other people’s image of you, for the worse.

People don’t want apps to post to their Google+ account because then the apps are taking over the identity that the account projects to other people. And they don’t want Google to know about their app use because they want to control the identity that they project to Google. What Google thinks of them is important because nowadays people learn about other people by asking Google.

Control of identity is why federated login in the Google+ or Facebook or Twitter sense won’t work. All of these companies would like you to have a single identity (the “real names” policy). That doesn’t fit with how people use identities.

Federated login does not in itself force the use of a single identity, so it’s worth considering federated login systems that permit multiple identities. The most prominent of these is Mozilla Persona. Persona’s a good effort but I don’t think it gets everything right. More on that another day.