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Persistent Identity

Last Updated
8/11/2021
Category
Identity & Agency
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The Design Problem

A good design practice is to display extra information that can be used to locate a particular user. For example, for a federated service like e-mail, you add the service provider’s name in addition to the name (sally@emailspace.net). This is sufficient but runs into issues when a user wants to change their name or provider. The user then needs to take on the cumbersome task of notifying all contacts of their new address. Recipients would need to trust your new e-mail address, without any strong proof that the sender is the same person or even using the same device. Users thus rarely change names or move providers even if they grow to dislike their current provider.

The Design Solution

Generate a new id when a user creates a profile. This is a sufficiently long string of characters that would be nearly impossible to guess (e.g., a public key). If the user changes their service provider or name, the id does not change, allowing an application to keep an up-to-date contact list and make it easier for users to understand if they are talking to the same person.

Examples

Why Choose Persistent Identity?

  • When you want to enable users to securely move between providers and names with ease.

Best Practice: How to Implement Persistent Identity

  • Users need to have strict control over when and where their id is shared. Never automatically share this id on a public service unless users explicitly opt-in to publicly sharing this id, as it could be used nefariously by 3rd parties to contact a user without their consent.
  • Make sure that the same id is not reused across names that are intended to be separate (e.g., two users on the same device should have two different ids).

Potential Problems with Persistent Identity

By assigning an id to a particular account, it can make it more difficult to create entirely anonymous accounts. For example, if a 3rd-party finds the id secret in the profile on the device’s hard drive, they have linked that device to that account. To give extra security guarantees, ensure any identifiers are deleted completely from devices upon account deletion. See disposable-identity for more information about anonymous, one-time, and short-lived accounts.

The Take Away

Persistent identities can help give users continuity and trust in who they’re talking to. It also encourages healthy competition between clients that implement the protocol, as it’s more difficult to lock users into a specific provider.

References & Where to Learn More