Lessig vs. Harper

by on March 2, 2008 · 0 comments

I’m re-reading Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. I last read it about four years ago, long enough that I’d forgotten a lot of the specific claims Lessig made. One of the things that I think has clearly not occurred is his prediction that we would develop a “general architecture of trust” that would “permit the authentication of a digital certificate that verifies facts about you—your identity, citizenship, sex, age, or the authority you hold.” Lessig thought that “online commerce will not fully develop until such an architecture is established,” and that way back in 1999, we could “see enough to be confident that it is already developing.”

Needless to say, this never happened, and it now looks unlikely that it ever will happen. The closest we came was with Passport, which was pretty much a flop. We have instead evolved a system in which people have dozens of lightweight online identities for the different websites they visit, many of which involve little more than setting a cookie on one’s browser. The kind of universal, monolithic ID system that would allow any website to quickly and transparently learn who you are seems much less likely today than it apparently seemed to Lessig in 1999.

Of course, this would have been obvious to Lessig if he’d had the chance to read Jim Harper’s Identity Crisis. Jim explained that the security of an identifier is a function not only of the sophistication of its security techniques, but also of the payoff for breaking it. A single, monolithic identifier is a bad idea because it becomes an irresistible target for the bad guys. It’s also insufficiently flexible: Security rules that are robust enough for online banking is going to be overkill for casual web surfing. What I want, instead, are a range of identifiers of varying level of security, tailored to the sensitivity of the systems to which they control access.

Online security isn’t much about technology at all. For example, the most important safeguard against online credit card fraud isn’t SSL. It’s the fact that someone trying to buy stuff with a stolen credit card has to give a delivery location, which can be used by the police to apprehend him. Our goal isn’t and shouldn’t be maximal security in every transaction. Rather, it’s to increase security until the costs of additional security on the margin cease to outweigh the resulting reductions in fraud. If the size of a transaction is reasonably low, and most people are honest, quite minimalist security precautions may be sufficient to safeguard it. That appears to be what’s happened so far, and Lessig’s prediction to the contrary is starting to look rather dated.

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