We Contain Multitudes

In Sweden they have something called BankID, which is an authentication provider. There are lots of apps and services that rely on BankID for their logins and other services – serious things like your social benefits and scheduling doctor appointments, and other day-to-day things like the Swedish versions of Venmo, Craigslist, and Zillow. It’s a pretty good system and user experience. You get a BankID account from … your bank and you have an app on your phone. When you want to log in, you snap a photo of a QR code on the app, plug in your PIN number, and it authenticates you. It’s pretty great.

The biggest problem is that it’s tied exclusively to your personummer (a sort of public Swedish Social Security Number) and bank account. That means you get one BankID, and you have to have a bank account to get it. This is not great – for unbanked people, for privacy, or for flexibility even. It’s a system that cannot accommodate an alias; what if I want two realms of my online life to remain separate? It’s a system that cannot accommodate privacy; what if I don’t want my real name associated with my internet use? It’s a system that can’t imagine the problems with centralizing your life under an institution; what if I don’t want my bank to know what I’m doing online?

Could we have a similar experience with dedicated authentication providers, without the hegemonic power structure being in charge? Perhaps your library could operate one, and you can log in to all these apps with your library card credentials. Or a community group could do the same, or even just an independent person could run their own from their basement. These community-run authentication providers can issue credentials however works for them, and as a human being I can have as many of these identities as I need, from providers that I trust.

I don’t need a lot of these to know exactly who I am – it could be fine for me to be “a member of the library” or “part of this community group”. It also doesn’t necessarily need to be totally private – I’m happy being “a parent with a child in public school”, or “an adjunct at the community college”. In our current world, we can imagine that one would want their login to lesson planning tools be different than their login to OnlyFans.

Who I am online is an expanded field: from public to private; from institutional to independent.

Nikolas Wise2024.04.18