It's a slow news day, so it's time to blog about one of the interesting (for some extremely abstract definition of the word "interesting") problems we're trying to solve here at work: identity. How does anybody know that you are who you say you are (where, for the purposes of the preceding sentence, the words "how", "anybody", "you", "are" and "know" have some level of arbitrary abstractness not yet defined by anyone)? If sheer opacity of language hasn't already convinced you that this is a problem people are struggling to solve, consider your Amazon.com account. It contains a bunch of information that Amazon knows about you that nobody else should have access to (and, in fact, you might argue that you don't want information such as what books you've bought, what music you like, or generally how best to market new products to you, known by Amazon either. Sadly, the time to register your complaints about the information age with The Powers That Be has come and gone. While you can still opt out at any time, you will literally have to go live in a cave in order to do so. Yes, I work here and I'm scared too. Have a nice day).
One of the upshots of the rather invisible Web 2.0 revolution is that your Amazon identity is no longer just a set of information about you, but rather a set of privileges--things like the ability to charge items to your credit card, or the ability to ship things second-day air for free because you're a member of Amazon Prime. The world coming soon to a theater near you that involves you buying virtual things has got the folks who care about things like intellectual property rights freaked right the hell out. You can buy perfect digital copies of books, songs, movies, or episodes of television shows and own them, carry them around, and, for all the copyright holders know, actually give them to your friends without paying for them again. So the enormous corporations that hold these copyrights are all in a tizzy, because their position as distributor middle-men is threatened. Or was it that the integrity of the original artist's work is threatened if the enormous multi-national doesn't control the distribution and release of that artist's ouevre? Well, in any case, some entity that controls an enormous amount of wealth is feeling threatened. I'm sure it's probably the artists of the world (don't mess with the Artist's Union, dude, they will fuck you up). So here's the problem--the powers that be want to figure out a way to sell these things to you without you actually owning them, such as having the movies, songs, books, or tv shows on a server, and giving you access to that server at any moment, such that you can stream the song or movie whenever you want. Here enters the third party: you buy an eBook from Amazon. Bob Livestockowski of Bob Livestockowski's Software Development Concern© writes a software program that will sync any eBooks you own to your PDA so that you can take them with you and read them wherever you go. But Bob Livestockowski isn't affiliated with Amazon.com, and so doesn't know which books you have "bought," nor does he have your Amazon account information, nor do you particularly want to give it to him, because Bob is kind of a shady character, what with his previous business forays into writing illicit spyware and Albanian Yak smuggling. Still, you want the program that syncs your PDA with your Amazon eBook stream, and you want to give Bob the ability to get it for you without giving him your Amazon user name and password outright. And there you are: a little problem for the Web, Version 2.0.
Possibly I became a little sardonic in that last paragraph whilst describing what we hip techno-folks call the "problem space" of 21st Century User Authentication. I do apologize for that. This morning, five of us uber-hip wonks were sitting in an office mulling over one of our latest proposals for solving this problem, and I noted to myself, "Hmm...here I am on the cutting edge of some obscure outpost of technology. How very...something." This evening I'm sitting here writing about it and I can't think of anything better to say about it.
Tags: Internet, Web 2.0