The web of trust, circa 2010

At a service stop on the Merritt Parkway over the weekend, I was approached by a young couple in a jam. They were halfway to their destination, had pulled in for gas, then realized neither had brought a wallet. They were both on their phones, working the problem, and the guy looked up to ask if I’d heard of a roadside assistance program that could help in that situation. I wound up giving them ten bucks. Maybe it was a scam, in which case I only lost $10. But maybe it wasn’t, in which case I helped some folks in need.

Ten bucks wasn’t enough to get them as far as they said they needed to go, though. And later I got to thinking about how we might have created enough trust, in an ad-hoc way, for me to make a short-term loan of, say, $50. It’s an interesting thought experiment. I wonder what solutions you can imagine? Here are a few that occurred to me.

Web identity. Given a web connection, I could have searched for the couple’s names, found their web footprints, and verified that their photographs, locations, and other attributes matched what they claimed.

Six degrees of separation. If we could trace our connection through social network space, that might be enough. It might even be possible to do that with voice calls, but with a web connection it could be almost trivial.

PayPal. Given a web connection, we could have brought up a browser and done a PayPal transaction. In that case I wouldn’t even be making a loan, I’d know that the funds had been transferred before handing over cash.

Losing my wallet while traveling is a nightmare scenario for me. It’s never happened but I dread the thought. I hate being so dependent on documents that I carry around in a wallet that could easily be lost or stolen.

Those documents embody claims made on my behalf by identity providers that we have all agreed to trust. That arrangement became necessary when society grew beyond what interpersonal trust could scale out to support. And it will remain necessary. But as voice and data connectivity become ubiquitous, and as interpersonal trust scales out in ways it never could before, I wonder if we’ll see a re-emergence of pre-bureaucratic modes of identity.

10 Comments

  1. Not really on the subject of identity, but there are lots of situations in which physical documents can be a pain. While traveling, you inevitably accumulate a collection of business cards, and phone numbers scribbled on napkins. When you get home, you are left trying to attach some kind of context to each piece of contact information. Some meetings were memorable, but that’s not always the case. There’s also the issue of having lost something that was important.

    Where possible, I’ve taken to immediately capturing a photo of this kind of information with my phone and saving it into OneNote. Then I can write a few words about why it’s important, or record a few seconds of audio.

    Taking a cue from SenseCam (http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/cambridge/projects/sensecam/) I’ve also been experimenting with taking a picture of of the person holding their card. It may seem silly, but it ensures that those important contacts don’t fall by the wayside.

    Those techniques combined with something like Mesh makes sure that the information isn’t restricted to a single, and easily lost, device.

  2. > It may seem silly

    Not silly at all.

    > Mesh makes sure that the information isn’t
    > restricted to a single, and easily lost,
    > device.

    Right. Ideally, all I want to acquire from somebody I meet is a permalink. It should point to an authoritative personal data store in the cloud.

    Nowadays when I meet interesting people at conferences, I follow them if they’re on Twitter, often during the conference but sometimes later. This gets me an indirect link to a website or blog which is our current best approximation of the authoritative public personal data store.

    The follow also sends a useful social signal, and — if I keep following — reminds me about what the person is doing and helps me think about whether to reconnect.

  3. I may have run into that couple in March on 395 in CT, or a similar couple.

    They told me they needed $10-$20 to cover gas at the station we were at.

    I offered to cover the gas by paying directly to the cashier.

    They declined and really emphasized the need for cash, at which point I “remembered” I’d left all my cash at home.

    I wasn’t really trying to call them out, but have found out the hard way not to show if/how much cash you have on hand when driving alone.

    Since identity & documents are so easily faked, verifying the intended use has become an easy filter for me when someone approaches me like this.

  4. I offered to cover the gas by paying directly to the cashier.

    Excellent idea! I wish I had thought of that.

    Another easy thing to have done: “OK, if I can take your picture, and also a picture of your license plate.”

  5. Deep thoughts indeed! I think you omitted one potential mark of progress in the evolution of trust: facial recognition built into mobile devices. One day, the panhandler and the panhandlee will both be able to scan and identify each other, and verify claims to chronic indigence or the likelihood of an empty wallet!

    Some day all good people will have the digital equivalent of the police power to demand, “Your papers, please” – politely, of course.

    Authoritative data sources will reduce our reliance on hunches, whims, and other transient affections, and remove dangerous impulsivity from our decision making processes.

  6. Some day all good people will have the digital equivalent of the police power to demand, “Your papers, please” – politely, of course.

    Maybe so. In which case David Brin’s The Transparent Society will turn out to have been prescient. For him the problem is not the amount of data about us that will exist, which he regards as unstoppable. Rather, the problem is unequal access to that data — in particular, the state’s (or the corporation’s) privileged access to it.

  7. Interesting scenario. It would be certainly good to be able to occasionally “break anonymity” for the purposes of a one-time transaction such as you describe. I suppose that if this had been Japan, they could have waved their phone at the gas pump and paid.

    Years ago, my dad, having seen a sign for a gas station for which he had a gas card, inadvertently drove into an adjacent station. Only as he was pumping gas did he notice the original station across the way… to his relief, the owner trusted my dad enough (a disheveled-looking near-octogenarian) to accept a check via mail once he got home.

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