The Digital ID Solution

John Patrick is one of my favorite people.

His title is Vice President of Internet Technology for IBM. But he’s really one of the original Internet gurus. His job is to see the future before it happens and try to make sure IBM gets there. He enjoys his work, speaks in clear, concise English, and he really knows his stuff.

He can summarize the key trends of the Internet in less than a sentence. “Fast, always on, everywhere, intelligent, natural, easy, and trusted,” he says. Encryption is the means whereby we make it trusted.

Trust goes two ways, Patrick notes. In addition to protecting your privacy, encryption can also protect intellectual property, a problem that has bedeviled many ClickZ readers in the last week. The solution, he said, is a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). Everyone – not just web stores, but every person – should have an encryption key or “Digital ID.”

A Digital ID provides authentication of your identity, confidentiality and integrity, and proves a file is what it says it is. It also ensures non-repudiation, meaning it can secure a valid contract, Patrick went on. But it’s in the area of authorization that artists like Leslie Kelly can use a Digital ID to protect their work.

Once we all have a Digital ID, “You can decide which things are to be shared or not shared. Anything made of bits can be encrypted, and you can have as granular a level of security as you choose.”

Encrypting an image with a Digital ID, in other words, will allow it to be displayed through a search engine, but won’t allow anyone – an individual or a site – to download the image. Sites could still index images, but the only way to see them would be through a link to the site, which would then control the image’s use.

“This is an area where government does have a role,” Patrick added. “If you go to Singapore or Taiwan, they have implemented a thin veneer of government regulation that authorizes the creation of certificate authorities which can issue Digital IDs that can create valid digital signatures. We don’t have that. We have 19 states with Digital ID legislation, and the proposals all differ.”

Digital IDs would also make cookies obsolete, Patrick said. “The cookie on your system provides a serial number so each time you hit the server during a purchase you can be served,” he said. “With a Digital ID you don’t need cookies.” The key would authenticate your identity.

This would also let you have control of your privacy, Patrick added, through the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) project of the World Wide Web Consortium. “P3P will allow you to establish the level of privacy you want, and enable your browser to negotiate with the server so you don’t enter a site that doesn’t respect your wishes,” he said.

Once businesses know that a Digital ID is universally accepted and useful, the keys could be distributed in many ways, Patrick concluded. The key is to make using a Digital ID transparent. “The day will come soon when we’ll think about encryption like a spell-checker, as something that’s just there,” along with the identification and property protection that goes along with it.

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