The Multiple Passport Problem: Declaring Digital Sovereignty


The promise of user-centric identity and personal data is better models of people and what they need and want online. This leads to greater value for everyone without people having to sacrifice their privacy, a rare win-win.

Passport 2

This morning Patrick Towell mentioned the multiple passport problem. I'd never heard that phrase before, so I asked him to explain. The multiple passport problem describes the world where we have multiple accounts, identifiers, and copies of data at every Web site. I was familiar, of course, with the problem, but not the name he'd given it. I think describing it as multiple passports is brilliant because that name accounts for some of the frustration we all feel. We have to keep credentials—passports, if you will—for every site. We are citizens of every Web site and thus have a home at none of them.

Logging in with Facebook, Google, or Twitter via OAuth makes the problem somewhat more palatable as we now can use our citizenship at one Web site to enter and participate in another. Still this, at most, saves us having separate identifiers, but we still usually duplicate attributes.

The clear alternative to all this is for us to each be sovereign, issuing our own passports, or at least choosing the place where we are citizens of (our identity provider) and using that passport everywhere. That model is better because that's all how we view ourselves—at the center of our experience. Any model that better aligns with the vision people bring to the Web is bound to better serve them and, in the long run, the Web sites and applications as well.

To carry this point a little further, any identification is a model. Most are fairly limited and thus limited in what they can achieve. Facebook has a much better model of me—merely by including my relationships—than almost any other Web site. I don't think it's an accident that they are able to thereby provide greater perceived value to their members. I think it stands to reason that if we were to give users tools that make it easy to self-model and thus put more and more of the data about themselves online, then the model that results would more accurately match truth and thus even more value would be unlocked.

This is the promise of user-centric identity and personal data: greater value for everyone without people having to sacrifice their privacy, a rare win-win. If this is at all interesting to you, come to IIW next week and discuss it with us.