I’m going to stick my neck out a bit and say that, online, identity is the most important factor in any conversation or transaction. That’s not to say I’m a believer in tying these things to real-world, offline identities. Not at all.

Trust models change when verification is involved. For example, if I show up at your door claiming to be Doug Belshaw, how can I prove that’s the case? The easiest thing to do would be to use government-issued identification such as my passport or driving license. But what if I haven’t got any, or I’m unwilling to use it? (see the use case for CheapID) In those kinds of scenarios, you’re looking for multiple, lower-bar verification touchstones.

As human beings, we do this all of the time. When we meet someone new, we look for points of overlapping interest, often based around human relationships. This helps situate the ‘other’ in terms of our networks, and people can inherit trust based on existing relationships and interactions.

Online, it’s different. Sometimes we want to be anonymous, or at least pseudo-anonymous. There’s no reason, for example, why someone should be able to track all of my purchases just because I’m participating in a digital transaction. Hence Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

When it comes to communication, we’ve got encrypted messengers, the best of which is widely regarded to be Signal from Open Whisper Systems. For years, we’ve tried (and failed) to use PGP/GPG to encrypt and verify email transactions, meaning that trusted interactions are increasingly taking place in locations other than your inbox.

On the one hand, we’ve got purist techies who constantly question whether a security/identity approach is the best way forward, while on the other end of the spectrum there’s people using the same password (without two-factor authentication) for every app or service. Sometimes, you need a pragmatic solution.

keybase

I remember being convinced to sign up for Keybase.io when it launched thanks to this Hacker News thread, and particularly this comment from sgentle:

Keybase asks: who are you on the internet if not the sum of your public identities? The fact that those identities all make a certain claim is a proof of trust. In fact, for someone who knows me only online, it’s likely the best kind of trust possible. If you meet me in person and I say “I’m sgentle”, that’s a weaker proof than if I post a comment from this account. Ratchet that up to include my Twitter, Facebook, GitHub, personal website and so forth, and you’re looking at a pretty solid claim.

And if you’re thinking “but A Scary Adversary could compromise all those services and Keybase itself”, consider that an adversary with that much power would also probably have the resources to compromise highly-connected nodes in the web of trust, compromise PKS servers, and falsify real-world identity documents.

I think absolutism in security is counterproductive. Keybase is definitionally less secure than, say, meeting in person and checking that the person has access to all the accounts you expect, which is itself less secure than all of the above and using several forms of biometric identification to rule out what is known as the Face/Off attack.

The fight isn’t “people use Keybase” vs “people go to key-signing parties”, the fight is “people use Keybase” vs “fuck it crypto is too hard”. Those who need the level of security provided by in-person key exchanges still have that option available to them. In fact, it would be nice to see PKS as one of the identity proof backends. But for practical purposes, anything that raises the crypto floor is going to do a lot more good than dickering with the ceiling.

Since the Trump inauguration, I’ve seen more notifications that people are using Keybase. My profile is here: https://keybase.io/dajbelshaw. Recently, cross-platform apps for desktop and mobile devices have been added, mearning not only can you verify your identity across the web, but you can chat and share files securely.

It’s a great solution. The only word of warning I’d give is don’t upload your private key. If you don’t know how public and private keys work, then please read this article. You should never share your private key with anyone. Keep it to yourself, even if Keybase claim it will make your life easier.

To my mind, all of this fits into my wider work around Open Badges. Showing who you are and what you can do on the web is a multi-faceted affair, and I like the fact that I can choose to verify who I am. What I opt to keep separate from this profile (e.g. my gamertag, other identities) is entirely my choice. But verification of identity on the internet is kind of a big deal. We should all spend longer thinking about it, I reckon.

Main image: Blondinrikard Fröberg