Distributed Futures Forum, “Identity”, London Capital Club, 17 March 2016

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Nearly twenty of our group succeeded in digging out their tube passes, credit cards, and passports to attend our forum on Identity. Vinay kicked off the event with a presentation of his own, “Decisions And Profiles: Identity, Proof and Transactions”. He postulated a dozen theses on identity, viz.:

12 Theses On Identity

  1. The quest for a philosophically satisfying definition of identity is a fool’s errand.
  2. Biological identity is a shifting goal post: what we can detect (say DNA sequences) we soon manipulate, duplicate or edit.
  3. Identifying people for taxation purposes is the backbone of our common ID systems.
  4. Identity is poorly suited to many decision areas because it reveals too much private profile information (i.e. health status).
  5. Knowing who a person is in absolute terms can be dangerous or expensive (i.e. liability for later identity theft).
  6. Mostly we need a context for decision-making and an ability to follow up in the event of later trouble.
  7. Proving that two people are the same person at different points in time is relatively easy (passwords, say).
  8. Proving that two people are not the same person (KYC, auction, online poker) is much harder without physical inspection.
  9. People’s footprints in different areas of their lives pile up in different record keeping systems which may or may not have a similar enough frame of reference to later merge (credit card into with passports, say).
  10. Private key ownership can be used to unify various records through one key signing another key - but this provides for VII but not VIII, which is a major problem in many applications. XI. Voting is a special case, but could be the core case for state identity requirements...
  11. Do we have an inherent right to define ourselves, or are we part of the stock? Does this vary from one context to another?

His theses provoked a fascinating discussion and seemed to get everyone involved from one side or the other of debate, ranging from “identity issues matter most to the security & intelligence communities” versus “identity issues matter most to the tax authorities”, or “DNA forging will be common in about a decade”. A recent article by Michael and Vinay covers some of these identity issues from a financial services perspective.

We followed with a Round Robin of what people had in their ‘in trays’, always one of the most useful points in the forum where people work out how to link up on projects. Then we moved to three punchy presentations on a range of identity issues.

Matthew Commons, CEO of Cambridge Blockchain, and one of our founder members, flew in from Boston to share his thoughts on “Identity And A Future Of Frictionless Transactions”. He explored some of the trials and research that he and his team are conducting in financial securities and incremental sharing of sensitive information. The group discussed the potential of blockchain technology for applications in identity management and compliance among financial institutions and Matthew provided some materials showing how this would work on a sample blockchain.

John Bullard, Global Ambassador for IdenTrust, gave a presentation on “Dictum Meum Pactum … In The Internet Era”. IdenTrust is a bank consortium acting as a public key certificate authority and secure applications provider whose members include some of the largest banks in the world. John’s presentation of a much older (well, started in 1999, so older than most of the blockchain start-ups in identity) institution’s difficulties in gaining scale gave many both pause for thought and opportunity. It was noted that the aggregation of so much legal work in creating a solid consortium over nearly two decades had a value all of its own.

Anna Mazzone, Global Head of Client Development & Managing Director of Trunomi and one of our new members, spoke about “Barriers To Digital On-Boarding In Europe”. Her talk focused on the importance of EU data protection reforms that have led to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). She convincingly presented these reforms as amongst the most challenging for large firms handling clients’ data. However, she felt that these reforms might make Europe extremely competitive in the information and financial sectors. Her talk rang bells with people involved in discussions with policy-makers over strong encryption rights and the recent Apple v FBI iPhone unlocking case of San Bernadino.

All three talks generated valuable discussion on the opportunities for new technology. Sadly, we had to break for dinner, heading to the London Capital Club and its bar. Our signature cocktail for the day celebrated the importance of identity in two ways. First, the beer cocktail concerned was invented at Brook’s Club, involved in ensuring the identity and credit of gamblers. Second, the drink is a celebratory one for St Patrick’s Day itself, the Black Velvet. We headed up to the wood-panelled boardroom where, before dinner, Martin Lloyd, the Famous Author, told three stories from his most original and highly regarded book, The Passport: The History Of Man's Most Travelled Document. Martin kindly showed some passports from the nearly 1,300 in his collection and answered questions on the Neither-Civil-Nor-Servant life of an immigration officer, Nansen passports, and cycling through France and Spain. At the end of a convivial dinner, members and guests left happily knowing more about themselves and each other, and maybe a bit more about their own identities.