K(NO)W Identity Conference Day 1: Snowden Offers Identity Advice To Startups

Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of the Note to Self podcast (left), and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden (right), who joined the stage remotely from Russia.

FindBiometrics is in Washington this week for the inaugural K(NO)W Identity Conference. Day one started off with an incredibly high profile opening presentation, a conversation between Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of the Note to Self podcast, and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who joined the stage remotely from Russia.

Zomorodi interviewed Snowden for nearly an hour, and the result was a thoughtful, provocative, and fortuitous conversation, beginning with talk of the recent WannaCry ransomware attacks that locked thousands of computers all across the world, with Snowden calling it “a perfect storm of all the problems everyone has been warning us about for years now.”

As the interview continued, identity and privacy became core topics. Snowden re-framed the discussion around privacy, surveillance, and security—which often sees privacy and security negatively correlated—as a conversation about offense and defense. Security and privacy are defensive ideas that compliment each other, Snowden asserted, and they are negatively affected by offensive surveillance practices, such as those undertaken by the NSA which he famously exposed.

Notably, the interview frequently returned to a core theme that put the onus on vendors and service providers to rely on the bare minimum amount of user data needed to transact. Near the end of the presentation, Zomorodi posed a question from the audience that allowed Snowden to drive this central idea home: “When it comes to privacy and security what is your number one advice to startup companies?”

Here is what Snowden had to say:

“I think the key here would be to focus on: do you need an identity? What is the bare minimum  you must collect? Because increasingly holding more information is becoming more of a liability than it is an asset. Start thinking about other models where you can tokenize identity. Where it’s a bit more like a bearer bond used in the last century. Somebody has a token of value, if that is a spendable token of value, they can spend it. If they are dealing with something that is a particularly sensitive transaction, maybe you need to look at this in a more careful way. But for the mass majority of interactions, do you need to assess an identity at all? Do you need to be looking at how to exclude people, or should you instead be taking a more positive approach to this? How can you enable more people to become your customers? And the fewer requirements that you can impose on them… the smaller the amount of surveillance and retention requirements that you have to impose on yourself as a business, that are at best sort of parallel to your business mission, the more efficient you can be.”

Over all, the picture painted by Zomorodi and Snowden’s conversation was complex, speculative, and often uncertain—delving often into questions of morality and questioning the real value of true digital identity. It was a confident and provocative move on behalf of conference organizers One World Identity to open with an Edward Snowden interview, and one that clearly shows the K(NO)W Identity Conference is committed to taking control of the dialogue surrounding digital identity.

Stay tuned to FindBiometrics for more news straight from the inaugural K(NO)W Identity Conference.