Friday, May 27, 2005

May 2005 Early Indications I: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

(shipped 5/16)

Issues of electronic identity and mobility have recently been playing out in quiet but important ways. Each of three instances from last week's news is a classic case of social or economic problems being tangled up with a technology challenge. To see only one side of the question is to create the possibility of unintended consequences, allow hidden agendas into play, and generally confuse the allocation of sometimes-scarce resources. The emergence of location-sensitive services has occurred in sometimes unpredictable ways: rather than driving by the mall and getting an ad on my cell phone or satellite radio telling me about the sale at Penny's (to quote Airplane!), I and many others have much more pressing concerns about being identified and found - on our terms rather than someone else's.

-Google Buys Dodgeball
Dodgeball is a social networking service built - literally - by two guys, possibly in a garage. It combines mapping and location-awareness with connections to friends and friends-of-friends. Right now it has achieved its greatest traction in New York city, where people can find each other and meet up with help from the software that runs on cell phones. Last week Google announced that it had purchased the company for an undisclosed sum.

The connections to Google's expanding portfolio are fascinating to contemplate. The more I use Google Maps, toggling between a map location and a satellite photo or seamlessly dragging a map into a viewable window, the more impressed I am. It's a useful exercise to compare Mapquest and Google Maps, given that the underlying map data comes from the same source (NAVTEQ): the implementations have significant differences. Dodgeball also could connect with the Orkut social networking work, the Hello and Picasa photo sharing tools, and of course Google Local.

Viewed in isolation, the Dodgeball service raises the revenue questions familiar to watchers of Friendster et al: who will pay for what, and who collects, by what mechanism? But in the context of the Google suite, Dodgeball becomes a feature rather than a product, and those revenue concerns vaporize, particularly in light of the massive runup in online ad spending that's enriching both Yahoo and Google.

-Real ID Becomes Law
Buried in a Senate appropriations bill devoted to funding the war in Afghanistan, the Real ID provision mandates that states adhere to a federal standard for issuing drivers' licenses, effectively creating a national ID card. According to F. James Sensenbrenner, the Republican Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and the bill's author, "American citizens have the right to know who is in their country, that people are who they say they are, and that the name on the driver's license is the real holder's name, not some alias." Opponents of the bill - which numbered 600 - included states, pro-immigration groups, and privacy watchdogs. Encapsulating the Real ID language deep in the appropriations bill prevented consideration of the proposal on its own merits, a fact that both Republican and Democratic Senators bemoaned.

The Smart Card Alliance announced its support for the measure, which will cost an estimated $100 million to $750 million to implement. Expect other technology lobbies to follow; Oracle, for one, has been active in the debate for some time. That cost will be paid by the states, which are now in the position of having to make their licenses "machine readable" without any further guidance. The Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation will set standards for deployment; states that opt out will have their citizens kept off airplanes and out of Federal buildings.

More chillingly, as Bruce Schneier points out, nobody can use post office boxes on their license - even judges and undercover police officers. Illegal aliens, or "undocumented workers," will be forbidden from holding driver's licenses, which in purely statistical terms will result in more uninsured motorists and higher insurance premiums. States will be required to retain the documentation (such as a birth certificate) on the basis of which they issue a given license, in sharable digital form, for years afterward, increasing the risk of identity theft still further. As Schneier points out, a national ID requires a national database, and the abuses of the database, not the card, are the main cause for concern. Substantial breaches have already occurred at current leaders in identity management: credit card companies, state DMVs, health authorities. With more agencies connected into a de facto national identity database, the scale of risk magnifies. But Congressional leadership decided that a debate over the costs and benefits of such a system was not as important as preventing Latinos from driving to work. Expect those 600 groups of opponents to fight this battle further.

-The Breakdown of 911
After a series of implementations beginning in 1968, Americans on wireline voice connections could reliably dial the same three-digit emergency number anywhere in the country. As the Bell System of the twentieth century fades farther and farther from view, the presumption of 911 reliability declines proportionately with the old business model even as demand increases: New York handles about 30,000 calls a day to 911. The problem comes in two variants.

First, a number of Voice over IP customers with life-threatening - and as it turned out, life-ending - emergencies could only reach a recording at Vonage saying to call 911 from another phone. The Texas Attorney General is raising the question after a 911 call failed during a home invasion in Houston. A baby's death in Florida is being blamed on a Vonage 911 failure. According to the Wall Street Journal, "In a letter to Florida's Attorney General, [the mother] said the Vonage customer-service representative laughed when she told her that Julia had died. 'She laughed and stated that they were unable to revive a baby'. . . ."

For their part, Vonage includes bold-print instructions for manual 911 mapping during the sign-up process, but it's been estimated that up to a quarter of the U.S. population is functionally illiterate. One feature of VoIP is its portability: plug the phone into an RJ45 jack anywhere and receive calls at a virtual area code of the customer's choice. Navigating firewalls, dynamic IP addresses, wireless connections, and frequent network outages taxes anyone but the most technically adept Internet user. Children are also a key 911 constituency. Taken collectively, these overlapping populations raise dozens of tricky questions. At the infrastructure level, the FCC and other agencies face the substantial challenge of determining the fairest, safest set of technical interconnection requirements incumbent on the Regional Bells and VoIP carriers.

From the Bell perspective, 911 obviously costs money to implement and maintain, and declining wireline revenues translate to declining 911 funds. Connecting 911 to the Internet in a reliable, secure manner is nontrivial - network attacks have used modems to target the service in the past - and until contractual arrangements are finalized there is reluctance to subsidize the same firms that present themselves as full wireline replacements.

911 isn't just a VoIP problem either: cellular users represent about a third of emergency callers, but math and economics conspire to make finding them difficult or impossible. In rural areas, cell towers often follow roads, so attempting to triangulate from three points in a straight line can limit precision. States have raided 911 tax revenues for budget relief. According to the National Emergency Number Association, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, "sixteen states, including New Jersey, Arizona and Ohio, have upgraded less than 10% of their counties. Six of those states haven't finished a single county."

It's turning out that the phone is a major platform in the identity debate. Number portability was an unexpectedly popular mandate a few years ago, and the fastest technology adoption in history was a phone feature: 55 million people signed up in a matter of months for a service - the Federal Do Not Call registry - that didn't exist when it was announced. That's even faster than the previous champ, Netscape Navigator's zooming to 38 million users in 18 months. Given the global nature of some of these questions, not to mention numerous issues with ICANN and DNS, the discussions and solutions will only get more complicated. As the examples illustrate, getting social arrangements to keep pace with technology innovation is if anything more difficult than the innovation itself.