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Identity: Security Mechanisms and the Perception of Worth May 17, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Celebrities, Digital Identity, Family, Friends, Identity Theft, Love, Morality, Security, Self-Worth, Technology.

In the security business, there are familiar mechanisms for establishing who you are, and why you deserve access to a building, an area, a computer, and so on. We use similar mechanisms to place value upon celebrities, people in positions of power, and even upon friends and acquaintances. Isn’t it odd that we seem to use similar things for such (apparently) dissimilar purposes?


Token Gestures
Consider the ways you are granted access to certain things of value. These mechanisms can be generally categorized in the following ways: Something you have, something you know, and something you are.

To give you the opportunity to start your car or enter your house, you have a key. To get into your office, you may have an access card, which is really just an electronic key. This is something you have. This means that it’s also something you can lose. It is also possible to copy a key (regardless of the “do not copy” imprint it may possess). What happens when you lose this, or when it’s stolen?

Generally, a lost key or access card can be rendered useless. The lock can be changed, or the card can be invalidated. The repercussions on you, the key-holder, are minor. You slip the old key off the ring, slip the new one on, and off you go. (In the case of an access card, you may have to may have to deal with a surly security administrator.)

Thanks for the Memories
Similarly, a child is able to open their school locker by remembering a combination. New cars support a simplified combination lock like this, and your computer most likely requires a password. This is something you know. It’s also possible to lose this, by means of forgetting it. Also, someone can’t typically take this away from you without you knowing that it’s gone.

Unlike a physical key (sometimes called a “security token”), someone can copy a password or memorized combination (say, by looking over your shoulder) without you realizing that this happened. In this regard, stealing the password doesn’t cause a loss of possession, it simply causes the lock to be less secure.

An Eye for an Aye…
Most recently, the science of biometrics has made it possible to grant or deny access to something based on physical characteristics such as our fingerprint, the dimensions of our hands, or the normally invisible patterns of our retinas. This brings a new aspect to security by basing these decisions on something you are, or personal attributes. It is still possible to lose some of these attributes. As action movies have proven, fingers and hands can be… well… lost (not so accidentally). Depending on your buy-in to science fiction, “Minority Report” suggests that retinal scans might not even be ultimately beyond loss or theft.

What happens if you lose one of these? If your hand is severed or you lose an eye (horrific, to be sure, but not implausible life events), this ultimate “token,” something that most systems presume you cannot lose, is no longer available. In theory, this can be overcome by analyzing the fingerprint of a different finger, the dimensions of the other hand, or the retinal patterns of the other eye. What if those aren’t available either?

More important, what happens if someone “steals” those attributes? What if someone is able to successfully steal your fingerprint, hand dimensions, or retinas? Modern high-security systems don’t rely on these attributes alone, but combine them with a token or password. As a result, without both the physical attribute and the password or token, access is denied. Unfortunately, the impact to the possessor from losing the attribute (finger, hand, or retina) is traumatic. Future systems, I would argue, will look not at singular attributes and tokens, but at multiple attributes, in a holistic manner.

All of the above are well-known in the security world, and are not just about granting access to information or things. They are actually mechanisms for establishing the higher-level concept of identity. They establish, for others, who I am. They state, to a group of people or an impersonal system, “This is me!” Recently, I was reflecting on this, and realized that our identity cries out in other ways.

Tokens of My (Self) Esteem
Possessions can be wonderful things. For example, I have a car that I absolutely love. I can put the top down, rev the engine up near the redline, and basically forget that the rest of the world exists. Since it’s a convertible, and since I’m in my mid-forties, my oldest son has dubbed it the “mid-life crisis mobile.”

For some (possibly many middle-aged men), the association with possessions carries with them a sense of self-worth. If my possessions are nice, then perhaps that makes me nice. If my possessions are exotic, then perhaps that makes me exotic. (This is how the line of thinking goes, consciously or subconsciously.) Since these can be lost (or stolen), it stands to reason that the sense of self-worth that goes along with them will be lost too.

For others, there is value in what they know. Perhaps they have gained great knowledge or wisdom, have learned secret (or not widely known or understood) things. For instance, with the right knowledge, an inside-trader can make a great deal of money (thousands to millions), very quickly. (However, in this way, they have converted something they know into something they possess. Others find value in themselves based purely on the knowledge itself, and the secrecy of it.) As was the case with a password, if the secret things this person knows becomes common knowledge, then some of that self-worth may diminish as well.

Finally, there are those whose self-worth is wrapped up in the very nature of who they are. Their hair color (or lack of hair), eye color (or lack of color vision), personality quirks, scars, habits, and even mannerisms all become part of a larger picture. These attributes of the person are more difficult to lose (or have stolen), but may also affect the sense of self worth if, for some reason, they disappear. My beautiful head of hair may go the way of the dodo bird, my physical skills may diminish (presuming that I have a skill to lose), or my personality may become mean and hateful due to some psychological disorder.

You Can Take the Boy Out of KY…
Some time ago, I made a short trip to Dubai for business, and wasn’t able to bring much with me. Virtually all of my possessions remained here in the U.S., gathering dust. Did my co-workers in Dubai see a different person than my co-workers here in the States? Was I any less of who I normally am?

The technical landscape was difficult to navigate. My knowledge of other architectures and technologies meant almost nothing in this context, because the systems being integrated had never been interconnected this way before. All of my “secret knowledge” was virtually worthless!

In that context, I was also at a cultural and language disadvantage. I knew nothing of the social expectations, and could speak only English. As a result, my polished (or so I thought) public speaking skills lost much of their value. The skills whose value seemed to translate the cultural boundaries were an ability to think quickly under pressure, and a knack for enlisting the help of smart people.

Celebrity Elevators
Beyond the way these things affect my perception of myself and my own self-worth, there is lastly a question of the worth that I place upon others. Whether it’s a spouse (or significant other), a boss/co-worker, or a celebrity, we sometimes return to the “something you have, something you know, something you are” pattern for establishing value.

Consider a person who has inherited a large sum of money from some distant relative, or better yet, someone who finds a winning lottery ticket on the ground. They suddenly are in possession of a commodity (money) that is widely valued. Though they may be the same person they have always been, many people will perceive them differently, giving them a higher level of respect, or treating them as if they have now “moved up” into a new social class. What happens to the perceived worth of this person when the money is squandered or stolen? My experience is that, in the eyes of those who elevated them (socially), the formerly rich will return to their previous social standing.

What of the person who knows great or valued secrets? Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, possesses knowledge about a great many things, both about technical things and about running a successful business. His company has, not surprisingly, taken on this characteristic, and is diligent about keeping and protecting their secrets. The perceived notion is, if these secrets leak out (lost or stolen), they will have lost their advantage over other companies. By keeping the secret things secret, they retain the mystique and aura of an obscure oracle, who dispenses knowledge and information to others begrudgingly, and perhaps capriciously.

Finally, what of the man or woman who is respected and admired for attributes that are less tangible than possessions or knowledge? Whether it’s the artful elegance of Tony Bennet singing to rhythms that my brain can’t comprehend, the incalculable precision of a Ted Williams hitting a baseball, or the unfathomable workings of Stephen Hawking’s brain, I find myself placing celebrity status on a variety of people, for a variety of reasons.

Who Do You Admire?
Take away all the possessions of these individuals, and for me, they are just as wonderful. If they somehow “forgot” the tidbits of knowledge they’ve picked up in their lifetimes, they would no doubt regain such knowledge in short order, and be able to again do amazing things. For these individuals, the value of who they are to me, resides in the collective whole of who they are.

Closer to me, there are people engaged in my life that I value above others. Am I Machiavellian in my behavior, wanting friends only because of their possessions (and what I can presumably enjoy as a result)? Or, do I value someone because of some secret knowledge that they have, in hopes that they share it with me, and grant me the same elevated status?

Or maybe… maybe I value someone for the intangibles of who they are. Not for individual attributes (as in “I only like blondes/brunettes/redheads”), but for the integral whole. Maybe I value them for such a large collection of attributes and behaviors that any (or many) of them can change (or be lost completely), and their value doesn’t diminish.

Who do you love? More importantly, why do you love them? Can you name the things that cause you to love someone? Are they temporal? Where will the love be if that behavior or attribute suddenly goes away? Will you continue to grant them access to your heart and soul, or will you suddenly slam the door shut, barring entry unless they possess that secret token, whether it’s something they have, something they know, or part of they are?


1. litlove - May 24, 2006

But can you be sure that you love someone entirely ‘for themselves’ and not because they resemble in some way a dearly loved figure from the past? Psychoanalysts propose that all love relationships are threesomes at least, with the ghosts of many previous relationships haunting the present day.

2. timthefoolman - May 24, 2006

This is a good question. I’ve had similar thoughts about this from the security perspective, as we look at biometrics moving toward behavioral analysis systems. For example, if a security system analyzes my movement (the pace of my walk, the pressure patterns of my feet on a mat, a visual analysis of my gait), there may be similarities if the same system analyzes my sons.

In the real world, this would most likely be combined with other tokens, much as we use biometrics along with a card or password. Interestingly, if the system “learns” these things over time, it would even be able to adjust for aging, injury, and so on.

Back at the “why do I love them,” question, there is little question that I am going to seek a mate that in some way resembles my mother (or father). Over someone’s lifetime, romantic relationships would also probably show a propensity for people with similar traits.

How does that make my love for them any less about the combination of things that make them who they are? I’m not trying to distinguish between some theoretical “perfect love” that is purely without ulterior motive. I was, and am, more curious about the way we establish their identity.

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