March 25, 2020

We can't go on together
With suspicious minds

Elvis Presley

Finding examples of failed trust relations has never been difficult, but today it's actually quite a challenge to miss them. Governments don't trust their citizens to stay inside, while citizens don't believe that their governments are acting in their best interest. Strangers are vessels for deadly viruses, and viruses are dangerous weapons developed by foreign governments or Dr. Frankensteins. In fact, the contemporary global political landscape closely resembles a Mexican Standoff.

Meanwhile on the internet, things are not looking very bright either. Consumers are constantly forced to accept a Faustian tradeoff: either hand over your personal data or give up your social life. Finding a trustworthy source of information has become next to impossible. Knowledge is considered an entertaining conversation starter, but does not hold any weight as such. One man's facts is another's fake news.

Amidst all these suspicious minds, however, I am optimistic that we can rebuild trust relations in the public realm: both online and offline. Public Badges are a modest attempt to provide building blocks that enable organizations and initiatives to communicate their values with their users. To build trust relations build on evidence, not just anecdotes.

The Paradox of Security

Why can't you see
What you're doing to me
When you don't believe a word I say?

Elvis Presley

As my teacher Friedrich Kittler posed, Code was originally developed to establish secure communication against a backdrop of suspicion. Its invention dates back to the Roman Empire. Foot soldiers were ordered to carry encrypted messages that they could not decypher themselves between higher officers that were entrusted with secret key. They thereby actively performed the paradox that holds the internet hostage today: a secure network of communication comes at the expense of trust.

Looking back at the history of the internet, it is easy to see that we invested a lot in making our technology secure, but not nearly as much in making it trustworthy. Security measures alone, however, never made our digital spaces any less dangerous. Most attempts to create safe digital public spaces based on security alone failed or even backfired. At the same time, the actual solution was often found by looking in exactly the opposite direction: building networks of trust.

In order to illustrate this, I'll walk you through a relatively recent example: the history of spam filtering. Up until the mid 1990's, little to nothing was done to prevent the unwanted soliciting on the internet. However, the rising importance of digital communication combined with the overwhelming increase of unwanted emails created a demand for spam filters. The first attempts all revolved around blocking suspicious domain and filtering for unwanted emails. These measure, however, weren't very effective. Spammers soon discovered techniques like domain and identity spoofing that made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between email and spam.

The big breakthrough came during the mid 2000's when ISP's shifted to so-called reputation lists, something that was complemented with engagement metrics over the last decade. Instead of just building blacklists, ISP's started sharing their whitelist and other positive metrics with another. Turns out, it's much more effective to build networks of trusted partners than to police the offenders. (The history of anti-virus software by the way is remarkably similar.)

Invest in Trust

And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds

Elvis Presley

In order to make the internet more safe, we have to invest in building networks of trust. In order to achieve this, technology alone can never be the answer. As the history of spam filtering shows, coalitions of actual people and organizations are an excellent medicine against the side-effects of algorithms. But technology can be part of the solution. And technology needs to be. Because even more dangerous than letting trust be a purely algorithmic consideration, is leaving it entirely anecdotal. "I know him, he's a good guy", is a statement that was invalidated for once and for all by: "Don't be evil."

The safety of our Public Spaces needs to be evidence based. With Public Badges, we enable organizations to collect and communicate the evidence around the values that they consider valuable. In future posts, I'll write more about the exact mechanisms that we are developing to facilitate these processes. For now, however, I want to conclude by saying this: sustainable safety cannot be built upon security. Let's invest in trust instead.

Public Badges is an initiative of Public Spaces that is currently being developed by Waag and Offcourse Studio_.

Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash

Offcourse Studio_

Schiemond 20-22

3024EE Rotterdam

The Netherlands