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How many personas do you have?

Aug 13, 20034 mins
Access ControlEnterprise ApplicationsIdentity Management Solutions

* Identification using names, objects, identity and personas

Last issue we mentioned the names of people who might be running for the office of Governor of California, including one Bob Dole, who shares the same name as someone who ran for vice president of the United States. Today, we’ll start by checking on another man who ran for vice president.

Back in 1964, a congressman from upstate New York was the surprising choice to run for vice president on the Republican ticket. When his team won only six of the 50 states, though, you can understand why better known politicians wanted to avoid being associated with such a debacle. After the election, Bill Miller quietly retired back to the quiet, peaceful countryside. Ten years later, though, he became even more prominent when he made a TV commercial for the American Express company.

The point of the ad was that Miller, even though 27 million people voted for him in the national election, was virtually unknown outside his home town and certainly wasn’t recognizable. But by carrying (and using) the American Express card he was “instantly accepted” all over the world, which was why, according to the company, you should “never leave home without it.”

Fast-forward 30 years to the present day and we see another purveyor of plastic, Visa, running commercials based on a similar theme. The ads portray the difficulty of a man getting a check accepted by a retailer who keeps asking for more identification and making more phone calls to verify the ID. It takes so long that the two rabbits the man is attempting to buy start to, well, carry-on like rabbits, and soon the shop is overrun with bunnies. If the man had only carried the Visa check card, the ad says, none of that would have happened.

In both instances, the unique identity of each person isn’t what’s emphasized. Authorization comes quickly because the person is part of a special group, and it is the rights and privileges of that group that are being authorized by flashing the group’s “badge”, an oblong piece of plastic material imprinted with a name.

There may also be a magnetic recording of useful information and even an implanted chip with more data that does uniquely identify this object from among the millions of similar-appearing oblong plastic objects in the world, but that isn’t the emphasis of the card-issuing companies. They want you to come away with the thought that this “badge” identifies you as part of a privileged group.

These groups are not mutually exclusive, though. I have an American Express card as well as a Visa check card and I’m sure many of you do also. Does that mean I have two identities? What about the half-dozen other oblong plastic “badges” I carry?

No, I only have one identity. What I have multiples of is something we call “persona” (the plural is variously rendered as “personae” and “personas” but is usually “personas” except in the phrase “dramatis personae”, the cast of characters in a play).

A persona is an object, and a subset of its attributes uniquely identifies the object in a given environment. This is an extension of the traditional definition, which the American Heritage dictionary gives as, “The role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one’s public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self.” You may have one persona at work, another at home, still another in a volunteer effort and yet another as a club member. There is no limit to the number of personas you can have; the only requirement is that no two personas of the same object can have the same set of attribute-value combinations.

Think about names, objects, identity and personas then come back next time as we tie them all up with federation and what one person calls the “yacht club scenario.”