What's in a name?

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Quite a lot actually, particularly in the world of social media. The popularity of Facebook, Twitter etc is very much driven by their flexibility in extending our real-world lives into the virtual in whatever manner we wish, including allowing us to completely reinvent - or fabricate - ourselves online.

The BBC reports on the rather odd case of Facebook allegedly taking down a user's account because she was 'impersonating' Kate Middleton. She wasn't doing that, she just happens to be called Kate Middleton, and I'm sure there are plenty of other Kates out there who share that surname. It's unusual because in most cases, social media sites leave it to users to sort out name ownership amongst themselves, except where there is a clear criminal intent to defraud or mislead.

Our problem is that the glue that binds online personae to their friends/followers/acolytes is their name: it is the primary identifier for the account, and often the tool against which friends may search for each other. For example, I have three social networking accounts: a Facebook profile which I use mainly for social purposes, a Twitter account that is largely focussed on my professional network, and a second Twitter account in which I take on the persona of an entirely fictional character. Annoyingly, the fictional character has more followers than I do, but that's probably because he's much more interesting than I am, and has some very interesting fictional friends.

We have invented a social media world that reflects the simplest of our identifying conventions from the real world. Just like the real world, we can be pseudonymous. After all, a name is not a fixed attribute, and an individual can have multiple names and change those whenever they wish. That may be fine for social media applications, but it's not good enough for a broader ID system, except possibly as a selector that allows an individual to point to the attributes that they wish to associate with a particular transaction or relationship.

Whilst our chosen identifiers are not unique, and whilst we continue to use contextual, changing identifiers such as names as public identifiers, this problem will continue. Names also provide a simple way for third parties to track us across multiple accounts, or to incorrectly assume that individuals who share a name are one and the same, and that is a key privacy weakness. We need the option to use meaningless but unique identifiers that prevent that tracking but ensure that we can uniquely identify ourselves when we wish to do so. More on that in another article.

In the meantime, I'm pleased to see that the top handful of hits against my name in Google report on my many acting successes, my distillery and US real estate business. Maybe I am as interesting as my fictional persona after all?

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  • This is not just a social problem, there are many business cases where disambiguation of person is important, for example in Anti Money Laundering. There may be some who bemoan the demise of the ID card, even though in international business this would have covered but a fraction of the domain ;)

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