Backchannel: A relationship-based identity system

User profiles present significant challenges when used between small sets of trusted participants. In this article, we propose an alternative approach that replaces self-described user profiles with trusted digital relationships.

Rolodexes from The Center for Land Use Interpretation.
Rolodex image credit: The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

To identify each other in the analog world, people use rich biological and physical cues such as eye contact, vocal tone, and hand gestures. But to identify another person online, most applications offer us user profiles, which can be limiting both from a collaboration standpoint, and for security reasons.

In standard user profile design, users are assigned a number in a database and can personalize their public identity. These profiles are usually owned, controlled, and moderated by a single authority. You have used one today: a profile photo and “real name” for yourself, locked with a username, password, email address or phone number. This design is ubiquitous.

However, user profiles present significant challenges when used between small sets of trusted participants. They are vulnerable to social engineering attacks, context collapse, and depend on access to cloud resources through a trusted third-party. In this article, we propose an alternative approach that replaces self-described user profiles with trusted digital relationships.

Read the full paper

Using Backchannel as a model example, we propose four design principles for trusted digital relationships. Then we used Backchannel to design and build three sample apps: chat, location sharing, and document preview. We also tested these designs with journalists, researchers, and designers. Based on this testing, we outline common user experience challenges and recommended solutions.

This work was presented at the 2021 Strangeloop conference.

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