Imagine getting to the airport just before the flight takes off and getting onto a plane as the door is closing. My second flight ever was like that. I just waved a one-way ticket at the flight attendant: no ID, no metal detector, no baggage scan. I was cashing in on a trust dividend that allowed all those costly security measures to be waived.
I’ve been thinking of this in terms of our digital world. Trust dividends are lost or made available for our digital property or blended (digital/real world) property. Understanding these is essential to our online relationships, our security and effectiveness. Knowing what the parameters are and what options are available is also important for businesses as they design or remake their models.
There are many characteristics of trust and property in a digital world worth exploring. I’ll look at four here: authorization, context, risk and authentication.
Authorization – My ticket provided all the authorization I needed to get on my flight. It was the proof I needed that I’d paid the fare. Online, authorization may come in the form of keys, passwords or credit card numbers, to name a few. Agreements to terms through digital signatures may also be part of establishing authority to gain access to content, applications or communities. Behavior may, over time, be part of authorization. For a writing group I belong to, three critiques a month are part of the price of continued access.
For many activities online, personal as well as business, authorization is easy — there is a big trust dividend that makes interactions (as economists put it) frictionless. Depending on context alone is possible when the context is innocent or the risk is low.
Context – Just as there was a blissful time when you could jump onto an airplane at the last minute, there once was a time when you could connect to the Internet with no firewall and no malware defenses. This wasn’t because there were no scoundrels out there. A friend of mine was able to hack into a chemical companies systems by scavenging punch cards, so intrusion isn’t new.
In the early days, hacking into a system required special expertise that wasn’t widely available, such hacks were rare and most people did not imagine that getting hacked would have serious consequences. This last was naive, but threats often become only when you know someone who has been hurt or you read a lot of news stories about victims. Even today, people believe in security through obscurity. They often learn how vulnerable they are the hard way. Context can and does provide trust dividends, but these are easily lost.
Risk – Sometimes the trust dividend is maintained because the worst someone can do isn’t very much or doing damage is likely to be more trouble than it’s worth. Someone selling cheap baubles online can collect a larger trust dividend than someone selling gold coins. Photoshopping your online portrait into something embarrassing or offensive is doable, but we don’t usually protect our photos from this because the work to do so doesn’t provide much gain for the bad guy. (Yes, I might be naive about this.) Shareware is an interesting case the creator has calculated that payments or an enhanced reputation will outweigh the risk of even the majority of users being freeriders who never pay.
Authentication -The dynamics of trust change dramatically when we are no longer anonymous. In some cases, if you can prove who you are, you can collect on a trust dividend that has been lost to those who have a level of anonymity. (For a while, Verified Identity Pass was available in the US to speed people through airport security.)
Why does authentication provide trust benefits? It makes people accountable. Reputations, wealth and liberty (in the case of criminal activity) are at risk once behaviors can be tied to a specific person. And even when none of these are at risk, people trust more when they know who they are dealing with. One of the requirements for my online writing group was that I fax a copy of my drivers license to the host. The biggest risk to participants is probably bruised feelings. Knowing who people are means that they can be expelled for good if they are consistently too harsh.
There are more characteristics around trust and property worth exploring, but, even with these four, some implications for business are evident. I’ll delve into these in my next post. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.