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Online privacy, security and trust – may Janus be with you

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The number and size of online transactions is increasing rapidly year-on-year. It may appear that all actors are satisfied with the way this relatively new marketplace is shaping itself. Often, however, they are not. Transactions are usually based on an unsubstantiated trust that each will fulfil their obligations, but doubts remain. Will you, the customer, get the goods you paid for, and will the data you provided be properly handled? Is your counterpart entitled to do this transaction? Will you, the supplier, get paid for the services you provide? Reliable and easy solutions for these issues are needed to safely grow online businesses.

Janus is the ancient roman God who watches over all doors, passages and entrances to the city,ensuring it is a good place to live.

In the old days, you would go shopping in your neighbourhood. The merchants recognised you as their good and loyal customer and they treated you accordingly. Instantly, no questions asked, no irrelevant information given. Based on whatever information you wanted to provide. Customer friendliness combined with a keen eye for business.

Now, when you enter an online store you need to make yourself known. Merchants require all sorts of personal data and do not provide any logical explanation as to why they need it, and what for. If you decline, the merchant will not do business with you. He may let you in to have a look around, but as an unidentified visitor you must not expect decent service.

You may become nostalgic for the days when you were recognised simply by your physical persona, no registration required. This somewhat simplified view of ‘old’ high street and ‘new’ online business calls for an identity concept that combines the customer intimacy and privacy of the old days with the ubiquitous market place and speed of today. Central to this concept is the individual, the person doing online transactions. He/ she should be able to acquire and freely use an online identity that can easily be recognised and accepted by anyone it is presented to.

This saves the merchants a lot of effort – and money – provisioning and maintaining their proprietary IDs. At this stage, you may wonder, “so what’s new?” OpenID has been around for some time; Google and Facebook are omnipresent and provide very handy social login services. And hey, who cares about privacy these days? It cannot be protected anyway. Personal data are cash and you hand them over for free services. No worries, right?!

In JanusID’s view – and luckily we are not alone in this – there are some worries. What if someone else uses your personal data, or if you are mixed up with a person with whom you would rather not be associated? What if a merchant accepts a claimed identity and then finds himself in trouble for having done a transaction that he really should not have done?

Privacy, security and trust are scarce in online society. There are very good authentication tools that prevent your identity from being stolen. There are also privacy controls that limit abuse of data. But there are far too many identities around to prevent major problems.

Privacy controls go much further than privacy statements, which may just state how an individual's data is being used rather than protecting his/her privacy.

The solution lies in minimising the number of identities, improving their trustworthiness and maximising their acceptance. An online identity is reusable, preferably based on open standards. Third parties are involved in order to verify an identity’s attributes and rights.

Organisations providing these identities are held to high standards regarding privacy and security. Individuals determine where and how to use them, while merchants determine which identities to trust. The Dutch initiative for a government-mandated, but not operated, identity framework – the eID Scheme – is essential to stimulate the creation of an online identity ecosystem by commercial and non-commercial parties alike.

Irwin Oedayrajsingh Varma - Janus-ID